Spain opens 200 criminal inquiries into care home pandemic failings

Belén Carreño and Nathan Allen
·2 min read
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Artes

By Belén Carreño and Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's public prosecutor is investigating more than 200 cases of potential criminal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic at nursing homes, where the virus spread almost unchecked during the devastating first wave.

Angel Juarez, whose 95-year-old mother Leonor died from the virus at a Barcelona care home, sued the regional health department over alleged mismanagement of such facilities for the elderly and infirm.

"It's not about political beliefs, everything failed. It is a matter of justice: they died an undignified death," he told Reuters by phone. "We want to shine a light on the negligence and clarify who was responsible."

Nearly 43,000 care home residents died of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections during the March-May first wave of contagion, according to official data.

At the time, staff reported shortages of basic protective equipment, and army units deployed on disinfection missions discovered unattended bodies at several facilities.

In a statement, the public prosecutor's office said nearly half of its investigations related to homicide through a neglect of duty of care, while it was looking into 21 cases of deficiencies in medical treatment.

With Spain reporting record infection numbers on an almost daily basis, it warned that risks still remained across the care home network, even though health authorities expect to have most residents vaccinated in the coming weeks.

Pre-existing weaknesses, including governance, funding, working conditions, a lack of coordination with primary health care, and a lack of isolation spaces, are still widespread, the prosecutors' report said.

Ignacio Fernandez Cid, president of the FED care home association, said he welcomed the investigations but felt the sector was being unfairly penalised for broader failings.

"Whoever has done wrong must pay for what they've done, whether that's health officials or politicians or care home operators," he said.

Prosecutors shelved other cases, most of the time after charges were rolled into other cases or passed to courts, rather than because investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Spain has about 5,500 nursing homes, housing some 400,000 people, according to the European Ageing Network, which represents both individual carers and businesses.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Belén Carreño, Emma Pinedo; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mark Heinrich)