Since the Vale of Leven C diff outbreak, infection rates in Scotland have fallen dramatically because of the infection control measures and policies – Nicola Sturgeon

Health Minister Jeane Freeman, the QE University Hospital, Jackie Baillie MSP and Vale of Leven Hospital, which came into the debate at Holyrood.

By Bill Heaney

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Richard Leonard clashed over infection control and the pigeon droppings-related deaths at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

Richard Leonard told the Holyrood parliament: “The awful news that two patients, including a child, died after contracting an infection at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow has shocked us all.

“Our sympathies and thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones. This simply should never have happened. This morning, we see reports of a second infection leaving a patient in a serious condition. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport [Jeane Freeman] said yesterday that she believed that infection control at the hospital was good enough. Does the First Minister agree?”

Nicola Sturgeon expressed dismay at the content and tone of the Labour leader’s question.

She said: “I will set out what the health secretary’s comments, which I agree with, were about. First, she was rightly making the point that the evidence and the statistics on point prevalence of infection in our hospitals or hospital standardised mortality do not suggest that there is a general problem with infection control at the Queen Elizabeth hospital or across Glasgow more generally.

“Secondly, the health secretary was making the point and seeking to assure the chamber that, based on her visit on Tuesday, she was satisfied that the additional infection control measures that the hospital had put in place in light of the Cryptococcus infection incident were sufficient. Those are the control measures that I mentioned to Jackson Carlaw [the stand-in Tory leader]: the prophylactic medication and the additional filters. That was the context for the health secretary’s comments.


Labour leader Richard Leonard and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

“In no way, shape or form were those comments intended to suggest that the incident in question or the unrelated infection incident that Richard Leonard has alluded to is not very serious and is not being treated seriously. I hope that the health secretary’s actions this week have underlined how seriously the Government is taking the matter.

The First Minister added: “A difficult thing for anybody to come to terms with—I experienced this on several occasions when I was health secretary—is that, unfortunately and regrettably, on occasion infections do happen in hospitals, and the implications of that for acutely ill patients can be very severe. That is why we work so hard to reduce infection and to have the appropriate infection control measures in place. When events such as the one that we are discussing happen, it is right that we review those arrangements intensely to make sure that any additional steps that are required are taken. I can give Richard Leonard and the chamber the assurance that Jeane Freeman—who has kept me extremely updated on the situation over recent days—and I will continue to ensure that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is taking all the steps that people would expect it to take.”

Richard Leonard replied: “So the answer to my question is that the First Minister does think that infection control at the hospital is good enough.

“The health secretary visited the hospital on Tuesday. Can the First Minister explain why, as of last night, the facilities management workers, including the hospital’s cleaners, had still not received a briefing from infection control?”

The First Minister said she would ask the health secretary to look into that – “If that is the case, it is clear that those workers should have received such a briefing. I expect people who work in this field in any hospital across any part of the health service to be properly briefed on the challenges that are faced.

“I say in all seriousness to Richard Leonard that he has mischaracterised what the health secretary and I have said. What the health secretary said, which I have repeated today, is that the evidence suggests that there is no general problem with infection control. We are not complacent about that and we will continue to monitor all the relevant statistics—not just for the Queen Elizabeth university hospital but for all hospitals—very carefully. In particular, the health secretary was talking about the additional measures that have been put in place in light of the Cryptococcus infection incident. I think that she was taken to see some of the measures that had been taken and was satisfied, on the basis of the advice that was given to her, that those were the appropriate steps to have been taken. There will be no complacency at all.

“If Jackie Baillie is in the chamber, she will recall that I was health secretary during the Clostridium difficile outbreak at the Vale of Leven hospital. I know how devastating such outbreaks are for families and hospital staff, and how damaging they can be to confidence in the health service. The current health secretary, Jeane Freeman, and the entire Government will always treat such instances with the utmost seriousness. I hope that Richard Leonard will take that assurance in the good faith in which it is offered.”

Richard Leonard replied: “The First Minister says that she is not complacent, but this is Scotland’s biggest hospital and it is not even four years old. In October 2015, within months of the hospital opening, there were reports of elderly patients having to lie in their own excrement because there was no clean linen. Just a few weeks later, in November 2015, a premature baby died after picking up an infection in the neonatal unit. In February 2016, sewage leaks forced the cancellation of operations. In January 2017, an inspection found traces of blood and faeces on patient trolleys and mattresses. In March 2018, 22 children became infected as a result of bacteria in the water supply. Last October, chemotherapy for 16 children had to be cancelled because of contaminated drains at the hospital. This week, we learn that there have been further infection outbreaks at the hospital.

“The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport thinks that this is good enough, and the First Minister thinks that this is good enough, but does the First Minister really expect the public to believe that this is good enough?”

The First Minister hit back: “I say in all sincerity to Richard Leonard that I think that he is better than that last statement. Nobody, on any side of the chamber or in any part of the political spectrum thinks, to quote Richard Leonard, that it is “good enough” when there are infection outbreaks in a hospital. That is why we take these issues so extremely seriously. Generally—I am not talking about these incidents in particular—since the Vale of Leven C diff outbreak, infection rates in Scotland have fallen dramatically because of the infection control measures and policies that have been put in place. These are issues that everybody, across Government and the health service, treats with the utmost seriousness. Although it is absolutely right and proper that we debate such incidents and that there is a lot of scrutiny of them, I hope that we can all recognise that nobody thinks that it is “good enough” for any patient to get an infection in hospital.

“It is difficult to say this, infections do happen in hospitals. There is probably not a hospital anywhere that has not had some kind of infection outbreak. The implications of that for very ill patients can be severe, which is why it is so important that everything possible is done to reduce infection. In this case, everything possible will be done to ensure that there is no repetition of this outbreak.

“Richard Leonard cited a range of unrelated instances, none of which is acceptable—I am not saying that they are. It is because there have been a number of unrelated incidents in this hospital that Jeane Freeman announced the more general review to look at the design, commissioning and maintenance of the hospital in order that, first, if there are any systemic problems, they are identified and rectified and, if there are not, we can, through the process of that review, give the public the assurance that they deserve. I would absolutely expect scrutiny to continue, but I hope that every member across the chamber will recognise and appreciate the seriousness with which not just the Government but everybody across the health service is responding to these serious incidents.”

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