Bird mess, dead patients, and the SNP’s infectious culture of secrecy
By Graham Grant
IT is Scotland’s flagship £1billion super-hospital, boasting its own helipad, cinema – and even robots delivering bed linen.
And yet if you, or a relative, are about to be admitted to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, you might have some pressing concerns.
Chief among them would be the news that two patients have died after being treated for a rare infection caused by pigeon droppings, which can cause meningitis and could prove lethal for people with lowered immune systems.
You might have questions deserving of prompt answers: for example, how exactly did the pigeons get in to a ‘non-public area’, and whether patients are still at risk.
And those are entirely legitimate expectations – but if you are looking for answers, you might have a long wait.
Neither health chiefs nor ministers appear inclined to divulge much beyond a sketchy outline of the origins of this extraordinary episode.
One of the patients who died, it’s believed, is a child, and the cause of death is under investigation, while the other was an elderly patient, whose cause of death was apparently unrelated to the airborne Cryptococcus infection – more commonly found in tropical regions.
The mother of an 11-year-old girl battling leukaemia at the hospital said her daughter was given an intravenous drip and air filter system, while some children with cancer, and therefore weakened immune systems, are receiving anti-fungal drugs that do not form part of their treatment plan.
While NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has confirmed one of the patients who died was indeed ‘elderly’, it won’t confirm speculation that the other patient was a child.
One Sunday newspaper said the board told its reporter that the patients had ‘responded to treatment’, on the same day news of their deaths was made public.
We know from a Scottish Government statement on Sunday evening that the infection was discovered last month, but we don’t know when the deaths happened, because the board won’t tell us.
Nicola Sturgeon pledged that the hospital, which opened in 2015, would ‘transform healthcare for patients and provide world-class training for staff’.
But the days of photocalls to show off those shiny new healthcare facilities now seem rather distant, as the hospital’s bosses, sensing reputational damage, send their public relations experts into overdrive.
A freedom of information request which came to light yesterday shows complaints relating to pigeons in the ceiling of the hospital were made as early as January 2017 – and throughout that year a total of 12 issues were flagged up relating to the birds in just one department of the building.
One family revealed they had complained about a ‘pigeon infestation’ at the hospital in a letter to Shona Robison – shortly before she was axed as Health Secretary – nine months ago.
There is now ‘no trace’ of that letter at the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh HQ.
Miss Robison’s successor, former card-carrying Communist Jeane Freeman, has adopted the customary posture of any SNP government minister in the midst of growing controversy – better-known as the brace position.
Nor can this disturbing sequence of events, with all the classic hallmarks of Nationalist secrecy culture, be seen in isolation, after a long catalogue of problems at the Queen Elizabeth.
Safety nets had to be installed after it emerged in August that pieces of decorative glass panels had dropped out of place at least three times since the hospital opened.
At the adjacent Royal Hospital for Children, two cancer wards had to be shut down last year over a bacteria outbreak caused by filthy water.
There are also broader concerns about the performance of the Queen Elizabeth, where A&E waiting times are far poorer than the Scottish average.
Elsewhere in the city, the Cowlairs unit in Springburn, where surgical instruments are cleaned, closed in November after a ‘significant’ issue with mould and bacteria was identified.
The two-week shutdown led to more than 1,000 operations being cancelled – and some work being farmed out to the private sector.
The problems are said to have been identified up to nine months before the facility was finally shut down by inspectors.
In another healthcare crisis late last year, hospitals across Scotland were forced to activate contingency plans for the removal of clinical waste – using measures such as the stockpiling of body parts in mortuaries.
Waste was allowed to build up after the firm which was tasked with removing it halted pick-ups and later ceased trading, laying off hundreds of workers in December.
It had admitted two months previously that it had failed to incinerate hundreds of tons of waste, and subsequently lost its NHS contracts south of the Border.
Last week Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham told MSPs that a backlog of between 250 and 300 tons of clinical waste, and 10 tons of anatomical waste, had built up at the company’s sites in Dundee and Shotts, Lanarkshire.
Bags of clinical waste were pictured piled up at three health centres in Coatbridge, Kilsyth and Cumbernauld.
Vermin infestation, hygiene crises, hundreds of cancelled operations, rumours of a child falling victim to an infection carried by pigeons, out-of-control waiting times – and festering accumulations of anatomical waste…
It’s a nightmarish landscape far removed from the First Minister’s idyllic vision – more Third World than ‘world-class’.
At the same time, the public finance watchdog Audit Scotland has concluded the NHS in Scotland is ‘not financially sustainable’ in its current form.
Meanwhile, at the highest levels of the NHS, chronically inept bureaucrats on fat-cat salaries are helping to starve front-line healthcare of vital funds.
An investigation last year found that in one case, a single doctor was left to care for up to 200 patients, while nurses had to be ferried by taxi between hospital sites to make up staff shortfalls.
It also found three consultants left in charge of more than 500 patients, demonstrating the scale of a recruitment crisis that also extends into primary care, with GP surgeries around Scotland closing their lists, or shutting down entirely – more than 80 GP practices have been lost in a decade.
The Nationalists sought to gain our confidence in their ability to manage and reform our greatest public bodies, before winning our trust in their mission to split apart one of the world’s most successful economic unions.
In the SNP’s blueprint for independence, the now-notorious White Paper, there was an unequivocal commitment to safeguarding the future of the NHS.
The ever-present menace of Tory privatisation would be vanquished, and ‘high-quality, world-leading health and social care’ were promised.
Voters saw through that ramshackle document, but the SNP still presents itself as custodian of the health service against the myriad threats ranged against it, from the Tories to Brexit and, inevitably, ‘austerity politics’.
They all take their turn on the SNP’s eternal carousel of blame at times of crisis – which come around all too frequently.
But it’s clear from the damage it has inflicted on the NHS in the last 12 years that the greatest threat to our most treasured public service isn’t privatisation, or Brexit, or any other convenient scapegoat – it’s continued mismanagement by the SNP.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 22, 2019.