HEALTH Secretary Jeane Freeman has said staff are helping to spread the deadly wave of coronavirus infections in Scotland’s care homes.

Announcing all 53,000 staff will now be offered routine testing, Ms Freeman said the move was based on them being the main vectors of the disease.

She said: “The evidence I have relied on to make that decision is that the route for the virus into a care home primarily will be those who work in the care home, because they will be the people going in and out most from the community.

“Visiting, with one or two exceptions, has been stopped in care homes, and residents should be being looked after in their own rooms.

“There will be very little in-and-out traffic to a care home other than those who work there.”

The move comes after claims the Scottish and UK governments may have been culpable for the care home crisis by moving people out of hospital into care homes without testing them at the start of the pandemic in order to free up space in the NHS.

Ministers and care home operators have also been blamed for failing to ensure adequate PPE for staff.

Almost half of all confirmed and suspected Covid-19 deaths in Scotland have been in care homes, with 1434 residents dying to date, and 45 per cent of homes currently with suspected cases.

Ms Freeman said staff would be tested routinely to ensure the new regime was effective, and residents tested where staff tested positive.

However she said residents would in general not be tested in the same way, as they were less mobile, and the mouth and nasal swabs could be “distressing” for some.

Carers working in community settings would not be routinely tested either.

The Scottish Tories said the move fell “well short” of what was required, arguing that all 35,000 residents should be tested alongside the 53,000 staff.

The GMB union also warned that staff were “terrified” of testing in case they had to self-isolate on sick pay of as little as £94 a week.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: Care workers 'terrified' of losing pay if they test positive

Labour said the crisis in care homes would worsen unless staff had financial support. 

Ms Freeman announced the change at the Scottish Government’s daily briefing.

She said: “We’ve ben keeping all aspects of the support mechanisms under constant review to best protect both care home residents and care home staff.

“On testing we have a clear position where anyone who was a Covid-19 patient in hospital should give two negative test before being admitted to a care home. We’re also ensuring all other new admissions to care homes are also being tested prior to admission.

“Should a care home have a case of Covid-19, we have put in place a regime where all residents and staff are tested subject to their consent.

“For care homes that have no current cases of Covid-19, the current position is sample surveillance of residents and staff. Again, subject to their consent.

“But having taken clinical advice, I’m taking a further step and will set out the detail to that in parliament tomorrow.

“The further step is we will now move to a position where all care home staff are offered testing, regardless of symptoms and regardless of whether there is an ongoing outbreak in the care home where they work.

“This testing will have to be carried out on a repeating basis to be effective, and will help us to protect residents and staff themselves.

“Front line staff in both our care sector and elsewhere deserve as much support as we can give them.” 

Asked what the new clinical advice had been, Ms Freeman denied the change had been a long time coming and said the decision was being made as it was “right at the time”.

She said: “It makes sense, even in care home that does not have a case, that we regularly test the staff who work in that care home so that if a positive case comes back from one of them at any point, they are able to stay off work and isolate, and we are also able to ensure that we are even more alert to the prevalence of the virus for the residents.

“And we would take steps at that point to ensure that residents were then tested provided they consented to that.”

Asked about the GMB’s suggestion that the Scottish Government had been “fiddling while the care home sector burns,” Nicola Sturgeon said that was “not remotely the case”. 

Scottish leader Jackson Carlaw said of the new staff tests: “This still falls well short of the comprehensive action needed to protect care workers and those they care for.

 “What we need is a commitment that, in addition to care home staff, all residents and community care workers will also be included in a repeat testing policy.

“Given the scale of the challenges being faced in our care sector and the tragic loss of life in care homes and among care workers, nothing less than a 100% testing policy, extending to all staff and residents, should be acceptable.

“Many people will be wondering how many lives in our care homes could have been saved if a more comprehensive testing regime had been put in place weeks ago.

“That’s why it is critical that the full test coverage so obviously needed is now immediately implemented by the Scottish Government.”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who wants a dedicated fund to support care workers forced to go off sick, said: "Proper sick pay for care home staff is a vital foundation for the success of any test, trace and isolate strategy. It can't work if staff are scared of tests because they can't afford the consequences of a positive test.

"We cannot have staff scared to be off sick. These workers are on the frontline and face being on the breadline too - and we have to find a way of addressing that.

"Care staff who are off work with covid-19 are doing us a service by being responsible and stopping the spread.

"They should be paid the same as staff who are working. Their roles have never been more vital. There can be no disincentive to isolate."

"Care homes have not been properly protected but there is no point in arguing about that now. Instead we must quickly learn from past mistakes and make sure make much needed improvements to protect residents and staff."

However the Scottish Greens welcomed the move.  

Co-Leader Alison Johnstone MSP said: “It’s clear that regular testing will help provide reassurance to frontline staff, reduce the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable residents in care homes. 

“I look forward to hearing when this testing will begin and how often tests will take place.

“I have also called for regular testing to be made available to frontline NHS staff, a move that I know would be most welcome and should be introduced as a matter of urgency.”