A home care worker from West Dunbartonshire has died from Covid 19 amid claims that social care staff are struggling to access protective gear and virus testing.

Catherine Sweeney, from Dumbarton, died at the Royal Alexandra Hospital on Friday.

She was described as a "caring and generous" woman who had dedicated herself to caring for the most vulnerable in the community for more than 20 years.

Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the death as it emerged that some care homes in Scotland are struggling with vacancy rates of 40 per cent.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Their death is a reminder that people working in our health and care services are not simply showing immense dedication and expertise, they’re also displaying great courage.”

It emerged at the weekend that 16 residents at the Burlington Court Care Home in Glasgow died in the space of eight days last week in a suspected coronavirus outbreak. Two of the home’s employees are being treated in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19.

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There are now claims that 11 residents of Castleview Care Home in Dumbarton have died in the past 10 days from an outbreak of Covid-19, and that protective masks had been locked away.

In a letter to Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, the regional secretary of GMB trade union, Gary Smith, said management told care home staff that they were "overreacting and causing panic by taking temperatures".

He added: "Very worryingly we are advised that at the start of the outbreak face masks were actually locked away by management and staff were told they did not need to use them.

"Concerns have also been raised about staffing levels and specifically levels of nursing cover."

A spokeswoman for HC One, who operate the home, said it strongly refutes the allegations and said they have eight deaths in residents with suspected or confirmed Covid-19.

She said: "We’re outraged that Scottish Labour did not extend the courtesy of contacting us first and have instead issued a press release based on claims that, by the GMB’s own admission, are unverified."

Veteran care home entrepreneur Robert Kilgour, chairman of Scottish care home operator, Renaissance Care, said the sector was being asked "to do too much with too little" and that there was a feeling that "care home staff are being treated as ‘cannon fodder’ and ‘second class carers’".

He said: “There has been a huge increase in the cost of PPE [personal protective equipment] and increasingly long delays in their delivery, especially face masks.

"There have also been instances of equipment ordered by care homes being diverted to the NHS.

“The impact on the morale of care staff of PPE shortages and the increasing number of residents with Covid-19 symptoms in care homes has been massive."

He added that some hospitals were refusing to admit care home patients with Covid-19 symptoms if they were older than 75, and that care home staff and residents were not being tested for the disease "on any meaningful and helpful scale".

Mr Kilgour said: “The growing number of care home residents with Covid-19 symptoms are simply not being tested, and if and when they sadly die, their deaths will probably be classified as chest infection or pneumonia.”

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Kirsty Cartin, manager of the Inchinnan Care Home in Renfrewshire, told the Herald her home is struggling to access masks, gloves and aprons from their local PPE hub despite now having 15 residents isolated in their rooms with coronavirus symptoms.

Their first, and only, supply of PPE to date was delivered last week and is already running low.

“At the moment we have very little PPE," she said. "We’re on our last box of masks and they came in at the start of last week.

"We phoned and told them we had one box left, that there’s an increasing number of residents being isolated with fevers, and we were told ‘we’ll get them to you in a few days’."

Ms Cartin said the masks also appeared to be out of date, with a "use by 2021" sticker covering a 2016 expiry date.

Guidance for use of PPE in care homes was updated by Health Protection Scotland last week, and included advice that a single mask could now be worn to deal with several residents.

“That goes against the original guidance," said Ms Cartin.

"They’ve always said you have to change your mask between residents and a maximum of 20 minutes use, and all of a sudden they change those guidelines.

"It makes you question whether they’re changing it because of best practice or because they don’t have enough stock.”

Four staff are currently off sick and Ms Cartin said the care home has remained operational only because existing staff were working extra hours and skipping days off.

The deputy manager is now moving from her own home into the facility because she "can't take the risk" of having to self-isolate if one of her family members fell ill.

Repeated requests for Covid-19 tests have been rejected, however.

“No staff member we have has been able to get tested," said Ms Cartin.

"We brought that up with public health last week because we had one carer who went off because he had a fever and his wife and his daughter also work with us, so then the whole family had to take sick leave.

"We asked public health could they not be tested because that’s a whole family out of commission and we were told it’s ‘not policy’.

"They won’t test our residents either even though we have 15 suspected cases.”

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Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents independent care providers, said access to Covid-19 testing for social care staff or their co-habitants is "patchy" depending on the health board region.

"We’d like to see a significant increase and a ramping up of testing to get home care and care home workers back to work as quickly as possible this week,” said Mr Macaskill.

He said his members are reporting average staff absence rates of 25-30%, but this was as high as 40% in some care homes.

"They were having to use additional staff of people had to work multiple shifts," said Mr Macaskill. "That is just exhausting.

"As the virus begins to escalate and peak, we are anticipating that about a third of the workforce at critical times will be off. That's when volunteers will be vital to plugging the gaps."

The First Minister said Scotland has capacity now for 2000 tests-a-day, with around 5000 carried out to date on healthcare workers or members of their household.

She added that the Scottish Government “[continues] to prioritise the delivery of personal protective equipment not simply to hospitals but to care homes and to carers”, with six million items distributed to more than 1000 care homes and social care providers in the past two weeks.

“We are in close contact with the Care Inspectorate to understand how Covid 19 is affecting delivery of care across Scotland,” said Ms Sturgeon, adding that a dedicated helpline has been set up for frontline professionals to raise any concerns about availability of PPE.

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