CARE home regulators in Scotland investigated just 5 per cent of complaints last year as thousands of elderly residents succumbed to coronavirus.

Data shows there was a huge drop in the number of investigations carried out by the Care Inspectorate into concerns raised by relatives, carers and staff.

Figures show 122 of the 2,316 complaints were fully investigated in 2020/21, down from more than 600 in previous years. Of the 20 facilities with the most complaints last year, 18 were privately run.

Those included the Queensberry and Westfield homes in Dumfries and Galloway, which were the subject of 27 and 26 complaints, respectively.

The next highest number last year was for Abbey House at Kirriemuir in Angus, and Springvale in East Dunbartonshire, which both received 24. Others north of the central belt included 17 complaints about Pitkerro in Dundee, 15 about South Grange at Monifieth in Angus, and 14 about both Deeside in Aberdeen and Home Farm in Portree in Skye.

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Just under 40% of all complaints received in 2020/21 about care homes for older people were from relatives and carers, and more than a quarter were from staff members

The Care Inspectorate said the way it worked had to be “rapidly adapted” last year, including limiting on-site investigations in order to avoid spreading the virus.

The findings emerged as part of a joint investigation by The Herald, The Press and Journal, The Courier, The Scotsman and STV.

However, Highland councillor John Gordon, whose father John Angus Gordon died with Covid-19 at Home Farm, which was run by HC-One, has called for an inquiry into the way the regulator has been overseeing the sector during the pandemic.

He said: “Our elderly population deserve the best care possible and if there are complaints they should be addressed and dealt with in a timely and professional manner. 

“When I hear so many complaints weren’t dealt with,  particularly during the whole pandemic, and our experience of care, the care home, and the lack of transparency and timely information, the Scottish Government has a lot to answer to in terms of what happened during the pandemic.

“Questions have to be asked of the Care Inspectorate because I do not think they did what they should have been doing.”

More than 3,300 deaths in Scottish care homes have been linked to Covid-19 during the pandemic, and failings in the system will be a key focus of a future public inquiry.

Data released by the regulator under Freedom of Information laws shows that there has been a total of 10,481 complaints about care homes for older people in the last five years.

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The highest monthly number – 295 – was recorded in April last year as the pandemic was spreading rapidly.

It has emerged that, amid efforts to cut the number of visits to facilities during the pandemic, a new triage system for complaints was introduced by the Care Inspectorate involving “more dialogue and mediation” at earlier stages.

In the process, the number of completed investigations fell dramatically from an average of 52 per month in 2019/20 to 10 per month last year.

Instead of investigations, more than half of complaints last year were noted for “intelligence” purposes and future inspection work, almost double the rate in the previous year.

The number dealt with by “direct service action” – where the regulator contacts the provider and asks it to engage with the complainer – also doubled, going from an average of 13 per month to 27.

Healthcare was raised most frequently, accounting for 38% of upheld complaints, and included issues related to medication, continence care, tissue viability, nutrition, hydration and inadequate care and treatment.

Communication problems were raised in 17.8% of upheld complaints, followed by “wellbeing” in 8.3%.

Highland Councillor John Gordon’s father, John Angus Gordon, died at Home Farm care home in Portree after he contracted Covid-19. The home was transferred to Highland Council from private provider HC-One, following an outbreak in which 11 residents died.

He said “at no time” did he feel that his father was not being cared for but described communication with the home as appalling.

He said:  “I think they did their best. They were part of a system that failed them as much as it’s failed the residents and family members of those that were connected with the home. It’s been a very difficult period – to deal with your own grief and to know that there’s been so many complaints that haven’t been addressed or dealt with is quite shocking.

“This is just one care home but there are so many that I know from e-mails and letters that I get from family members of residents in care homes across the whole of Scotland.

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"There’s a tidal wave of issues that seem to be left unresolved or not being addressed and it just cannot go on, this has to be dealt with.”

He told of the family’s agony at being unable to comfort their father at the end of his life.

He said: “My dad would always shake your hand whenever he met you. For us, it was very poignant the day he died and we said our goodbyes.” I don’t know if he recognised our voices but certainly when my sister and I spoke he reached out his hand and it was the carer with her blue gloves on.”

A spokesman for the Care Inspectorate said: “In March 2020, in line with guidance from Directors of Public Health and after consultation with the Scottish Government, we rapidly adapted the way we worked because it was critical to minimise the spread of the virus, to keep people safe.

“Part of this meant on-site complaint investigations had to be limited to those that were deemed essential following an enhanced risk assessment. At that time we also significantly increased our contact with services and made use of technology where appropriate.”

“Where we have serious concerns about a care service we do not hesitate to take action to keep people safe, and we lay a summary report of all our inspections every two weeks before the Scottish Parliament.”

Kevin Stewart, the Scottish Government minister for mental wellbeing and social care, added:

“We have confirmed there will be a public inquiry into all aspects of the impact and handling of Covid-19, including care homes, and our immediate focus is on continuing to do everything necessary to save lives for the remainder of this pandemic.

"Care can be most effectively reformed to deliver a national approach to care and support services.”

HC-One declined to comment.