JEANE Freeman has admitted potentially infected patients were recklessly moved out of Scotland's hospitals into care homes at the start of the Covid pandemic.

The Health Secretary said the Scottish Government failed to stop the spread of the infection, and failed to understand the social care sector as a whole.

She said: “We didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.”

More than 1,300 elderly people were discharged from hospitals to care homes in Scotland at the start of the outbreak last year, before a testing regime was in place.

Although untested patients were considered fit to leave, the drive to free up hospital beds for Covid cases has been blamed for seeding the virus in care homes. 

Scotland had the highest care home death rate in the UK as Covid infected residents.

A third of the 10,000 deaths known or suspected to have involved Covid in Scotland have been in care homes. 

Ms Freeman, who is retiring as an MSP in May with a £44,347 golden goodbye, made the admission in the BBC podcast, Political Thinking with Nick Robinson.

The opposition parties said it was a “disgrace” she hadn’t come clean sooner about an error that had “cost lives”.

Ms Freeman said: “I think our failures were not understanding the social care sector well enough so we didn’t respond quickly enough to what was needed in our care homes but also in social care in the community.”

Asked where the Government primarily went wrong, she said: “We wanted people who didn’t need to stay in hospital any longer - because they’d been treated and they were clinically well - to be discharged as quickly as possible, so we freed up those beds for covid patients. 

“Remember, the early predictions about the number of people going into hospital were terrifying actually. 

“But we didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.

“Now, I might argue we couldn’t do anything other than we did and all the rest of it, but it still created a real problem for those older people and for the others who lived in care homes and for the staff who worked in care homes.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “For almost a year, grieving families have been left without answers about what happened to their loved ones.

“It’s a disgrace that the SNP covered up their mistake for so long. Their report on care home deaths was delayed and when it was finally published, they tried to spin it.

“The transfer of Covid-positive patients didn’t just cause a ‘real problem’, as Jeane Freeman states, it cost many vulnerable people their lives.

“We now know why the SNP refused to launch an immediate public inquiry as Parliament demanded. They made a grave error and instead of fronting it up, they tried to hide it from the public.

“People will be left wondering – why is Jeane Freeman only willing to admit such a huge mistake was made now?”

Scottish Labours deputy leader and health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: "These admissions will offer no comfort to the families of those who needlessly lost loved ones due to the Scottish Government’s errors.

“Labour called for a national care service a decade ago, at the time when c.diff caused preventable deaths across Scotland’s care sector.

“Nicola Sturgeon, the then Health Minister refused.

“Lessons that could have been learned were ignored.

“The time for reflection was when it could have saved lives, not now on podcasts.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "This is the closest Scottish Government ministers have come yet to admitting that their decisions in the early stages of the pandemic had tragic consequences.

"The situation in care homes was an unimaginably sad one. My sympathies are with all the families who lost loved ones and those who could not be by their relative's side at the very end.

"I hope that the ongoing inquiry into care home deaths will provide some answers for families and a degree of closure for those affected by this horrific sequence of events."

Dr Donald MacAskill, of the care home industry body Scottish Care, said there had been so much emphasis on protecting the NHS in the early stages of the pandemic that not enough was done to protect those in social care.

The SNP said the Government had already acknowledged mistakes were made.

A spokesperson said: "The Scottish government commissioned extensive work to review the links between hospital discharges and the impact of Covid in our care homes.

"The first minister has committed to establishing a public inquiry into the handling of Covid, in which the voices of families would be heard, by the end of the year.

"We hope other governments across the UK will come together to support such an inquiry on a four-nations basis"