Culture of secrecy and spin must be purged from NHS

SCOTLAND’s premier growth industry under the SNP is the public inquiry – and be in no doubt that business is booming.

Institutional child abuse, a trams fiasco, the death of a man in police custody: all have been, or will be, subject to formal probes.

Now the NHS is under the spotlight as inquiries are promised into the construction of two flagship hospitals, built at a combined cost of more than £1billion.

These are the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow and the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh, which is at the centre of a row over its delayed opening.

At the QEUH, it emerged earlier this year that three patients, including a 10-year-old boy, had died after contracting rare infections, two of them linked to pigeon droppings.

In the latest tragedies to hit the £842 million hospital, which Nicola Sturgeon had pledged ‘will transform healthcare for patients and provide world-class training for staff’, details of two further deaths have been revealed: 10-year-old cancer patient Milly Main, and a three-year-old boy.

A whistleblower has claimed that contaminated tapwater could be a factor in Milly’s death, while her devastated mother Kimberly Darroch believes there was a ‘cover-up’.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, who is facing calls to quit, admits it was ‘not acceptable’ that Milly’s mother only found out that at least ‘one of the factors in her daughter’s death was an infection when she read the death certificate’.

Meanwhile Police Scotland is investigating the death of the boy.

His mother has said two wards, including one where her son was treated, were closed due to water contamination, though the board insists they were shut to allow for examination of the drains.

Last week it emerged Miss Freeman had known about Milly’s case for two months, but kept quiet.

Her position, which sounded as though lawyers may have had a hand in drafting it, was that ‘not revealing it is not the same as not acting on it – and I acted on it’.

It’s a statement which leads to some uncomfortable questions: what else does Miss Freeman know, and what else is she refusing to disclose?

True, government can’t be expected to publish details of every death in medical care, but when there are allegations about a tainted water supply at a hospital which opened amid much fanfare just four years ago, transparency should be non-negotiable.

The unedifying bout of blame-shifting that has characterised so many similar controversies has begun in earnest, and Miss Freeman hasn’t ruled out ministerial intervention in the running of the health board – a development that might not succeed in shoring up public confidence.

Miss Freeman’s highly evasive performance aside, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has indulged in PR acrobatics of its own, even criticising the whistleblower in Milly’s case for adding to the family’s distress.

The truth has had to be dragged out, much as it was back in January when a Sunday newspaper reporting on the pigeon droppings row said the board had told its reporter that the patients had ‘responded to treatment’ – on the same day news of their deaths was made public.

Separately, 23 children contracted bloodstream infections in cancer wards between January and September 2018, while a Health Protection Scotland (HPS) inquiry found ‘widespread contamination’ of bacteria in taps and drains.

Jeane Freeman and Nicola Sturgeon

The board, currently in the throes of preparing for the launch of a clinic where addicts will be handed free medical-grade heroin, betrays every sign of deeply entrenched dysfunctionality.

Like other organisations mired in crises, the default response is reputational management: its central preoccupation has been the minimisation of damage to its public image, which has already taken a significant battering.

The practice of highly-paid bureaucrats crafting legalistic lines for the Press severely limits the level of basic human empathy on display, and the overriding impression is of a body caught in the headlights of a scandal that is spiralling out of control.

It should go without saying that no-one’s neck appears to be on the line, as it is now an unwritten law of the public sector that no-one should pay for their mistakes – instead the likelihood is that they’re quietly pensioned off, at some expense.

In 2014, we revealed that a former boss of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, then at the centre of a fatal superbug outbreak, had taken early retirement with a £1.4million pension pot.

Tom Divers admitted at the time that ‘ultimately’ he was responsible for infection control and even claimed he took a ‘keen interest’ in hygiene on the wards.

But his salary was raised by 5 per cent to more than £147,000 only weeks before he gave up work – a pay increase that was approved despite an ongoing police investigation into deaths at filthy Vale of Leven Hospital.

For her part, Miss Sturgeon, who was Health Secretary when construction of the QEUH began in 2010, has resisted calls for Miss Freeman to go.

It may be that she calculates that no-one else in her lacklustre cabinet, or on the backbenches – stuffed with placemen and loyalists parroting the party line – could do a better job than former card-carrying Communist Miss Freeman.

No government can have its cake and eat it, as much as it may long to do so: if you boast about healthcare triumphs when they happen, you have to acknowledge some degree of culpability when things go wrong.

Miss Freeman is right to voice concern about the board’s ability to sort out the mess, but ultimately these are controversies that played out on her watch.

And the inquiry may find that Miss Sturgeon, in her former role running the NHS portfolio, presided over early structural flaws, sowing the seeds for the slew of problems now coming to light.

Barring further damning revelations, we may well find Miss Sturgeon hanging onto to her Health Secretary as a human shield to deflect scrutiny from her own involvement in the QEUH fiasco.

The impending inquiry also serves as useful cover: detailed analysis, and awkward questions, can be placed in temporary cold storage.

The SNP has attempted to portray itself as the true custodian of state-funded healthcare, boasting ahead of the 2014 referendum that only independence could protect it from the machinations of malign, privatising Tories.

This stance is now exposed beyond any conceivable doubt as a charade; we can expect to hear much less about the party’s passionate support for the NHS for the rest of the election campaign.

A culture of secrecy now endemic across the public sector has been fuelled by the SNP’s fixation with masking its own myriad failures.

But these latest tragedies show that blundering ministers, and the incompetent fat cats nominally in charge of our beleaguered health service, are fast running out of places to hide.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 20, 2019.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper