Lurching from one crisis to another, the grim reality of our NHS under the SNP

By Graham Grant

IN a masterful propaganda move, Stalin airbrushed Trotsky from a photograph when he fell out of favour with the Soviet hierarchs.

Revisionism is now popular among politicians of all hues, and for that reason the SNP is – we’re told – updating its notorious White Paper.

This was the blueprint for independence that made a number of outrageous claims, including a boast about protecting the National Health Service.

It claimed an independent Scotland will ‘continue to provide high-quality, world-leading health and social care’ in keeping with the ‘founding principles’ of the NHS.

More than a splash of correction fluid might be required for that and similar passages, which sought to present the Nationalists as fearless custodians of state-funded healthcare.

As we revealed yesterday, an £842million flagship superhospital could be stripped of scores of its junior doctors because there are not enough medics to care for patients – making it an ‘unsafe’ working environment.

It’s hard to think of a more damning judgment to reach about any healthcare establishment – let alone the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow, which Nicola Sturgeon pledged would ‘transform healthcare for patients’.

Strictly speaking, of course, that claim is accurate, but it’s not exactly a positive transformation: the gap between the grand pledges made for the hospital and the bleak reality is widening with each new disturbing revelation.

For all of its modern innovations, from robots delivering bed linen and even a cinema, parts of it could become a no-go zone for junior medics – and what does that tell us about how safe it is for the patients?

Bear in mind that the hospital is currently the subject of an independent inquiry following the deaths of three patients linked to hospital-acquired infections: two, including that of a ten-year-old boy, are thought to be linked to pigeon droppings.

And yesterday it was reported that 13 child cancer patients had contracted infections while being treated at the hospital over the past five months, with some parents claiming there has been a ‘fundamental breakdown of trust’ with NHS bosses.

Meanwhile, according to some parents, patients are being given bottled water to drink because of the worry about the spread of infection; the NHS says in response that ‘at no time have we instructed patients not to drink the tap water’.

It’s no wonder that trust is fading, because at every turn a PR smokescreen has been deployed to ensure vital information is only given out after media scrutiny: as ever, highly-paid NHS chiefs are taking shelter in their bunkers.

In January, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said it would not confirm ‘speculation’ that a child had died from an infection – but soon afterwards it was forced to admit that the ‘speculation’ was, tragically, correct.

The potential repercussions for public image were also foremost in the minds of NHS strategists in Tayside, when it emerged that breast cancer patients were put at ‘significant’ risk after chemotherapy doses were slashed.

A damning report found that medical chiefs did not tell patients about the differing dosage – over fears of ‘patient anxiety, staff morale and departmental reputation’.

The women were left in danger of the cancer returning after the vital drug docetaxel was administered by NHS Tayside in doses lower than elsewhere in the UK; more than 300 patients were affected, 14 of whom later died.

There are also uncomfortable echoes here of another public health controversy – the row over a £44million school campus built on a toxic landfill site in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, leading to fears that some pupils may have been poisoned with arsenic.

Professor Andrew Watterson of Stirling University last week condemned an independent review set up by the Scottish Government over its ‘rushed’ and inadequate investigation, and called for further tests of children who may have been affected.

Then there’s the new £150million Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh, which still lies empty after independent safety inspections found serious problems with ventilation and drainage systems.

NHS bosses have been forced into the humiliating admission that they simply do not know when it will officially open – or how much it will cost to fix all of the problems, and since February they have been shelling out £1.4million a month in maintenance costs for a hospital that cannot be used.

Worse still, it may even have to be razed to the ground if the safety concerns cannot be addressed, while Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has ruled out a public inquiry pending the outcome of two reports, expected this week, which should provide a ‘clear timeline of when we expect the move to the new site’.

Any public inquiry would presumably have to examine the evidence of retired architect Robert Menzies, who helped to draw up plans for the hospital and who claims the design was flawed from the beginning.

Mr Menzies said clinicians came under pressure to sign off on a revised blueprint, or ‘reference design’, in 2012 that even the architects were unhappy with because delays were turning the project into a ‘political hot potato’.

Beyond the hospitals controversy, a host of other commitments lie in tatters: SNP ministers had pledged to ensure 95 per cent of patients are seen within four hours – but that figure hasn’t been achieved since July 2017, and has been breached 100,000 times this year.

As these scandals deepen, Miss Freeman, a former card-carrying Communist, has appeared out of her depth, and indeed a hostage to fortune, as one damaging disclosure has followed another.

Does anyone (Miss Freeman included) really believe she can sort out the mess – and perhaps more importantly in the long term, does anyone see her as the visionary who can carry out deep-rooted reform of NHS care?

Audit Scotland has set out, in stark terms, its prognosis, warning that the NHS in its current form is ‘not financially sustainable’, an assessment that seems not to have registered among ministers or their officials.

Political debate about the NHS has always gravitated towards which government has or hasn’t thrown enough money at it – rather than how it can be changed to ensure cash isn’t being wasted on fat cats and PR exercises.

As in education, wholesale reform is crucial, but the SNP is focused instead on its mission to rip up the UK, and in the interim it doesn’t want the challenge of more structural overhaul (after all, it didn’t exactly go swimmingly when the single police force was created in 2013).

Inquiries are all very well, and it may be that at least one is required to get to the bottom of the crises engulfing our most treasured public service.

But really what we need is a minister with a basic level of competence – and a government which can finally live up to its promises about safeguarding the NHS, which continue to grow more hollow by the day.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 10, 2019.

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