HEALTH SECRETARY TAKES A PASTING OVER COVID

Tory MSP alleges one fifth of patients in hospital for hip replacements went on to contract Covid-19

By Bill Heaney

The SNP government’s credibility on coronavirus is shot. Nobody believes a word they say anymore.

This became plain in the Scottish Parliament today when a right hook from the Conservative MSP Miles Briggs had the exhausted-looking Health Secretary Jeane Freeman firmly on the ropes.

Mr Briggs’s question was “to ask the Scottish Government for what reason it did not immediately publish details of the number of patients who have contracted Covid-19 in hospital.”

But Jeane Freeman did not know. She had failed to take on board the advice that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had given to the whole parliament more than once during the long weeks and months of the coronavirus debate.

“Answering that you don’t know is not the kind of answer that any politician would ever give in normal circumstances, but this is different,” the FM said at the time.

It wasn’t different. All is fair in love and politics. Ms Freeman dropped her guard and the Tory contender was straight in there with a telling punch.

 

Jeane Freeman, Miles Briggs with local Tory colleague Maurice Corry, FM Nicola Sturgeon, Labour’s Monica Lennon and the Holyrood parlaiment building in Edinburgh.

The FM wasn’t in the chamber to assist her Health Secretary today and that was noticeable as Ms Freeman produced some unconvincing answers.

Mr Briggs revealed that surgeons have warned that a fifth of the patients who were treated for broken hips in March and April have gone on to contract Covid-19 while in hospital, “and all of that is happening at a time when only a third of our testing capacity is being used.

“We have known for months that routine testing is vital to stopping the spread of the virus. Will the cabinet secretary finally accept that the Government’s failure to test staff has also created this situation?”

Ms Freeman then began to lecture Mr Briggs. All that was missing was the wagging finger. She said: “In respect of the comments about orthopaedics that Mr Briggs has just made, that figure is estimated—the key word is ‘estimated’ – “When we validate the data, we will know how many of those cases—including among staff—and deaths came about as a consequence of hospital-acquired Covid-19.

“As Mr Briggs should know well, Covid-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days. We needed to reach a definition of nosocomial infection for this particular infection, as we have done for all other infections that might be acquired in hospital or healthcare settings.

“Now that a four-nations definition has been reached that complies with what the European Centre for Disease Control needs, Health Protection Scotland will work through the data against that case definition, and it will publish the results.

“In that publication, we will be able to see whether the estimate is accurate, but it will be an estimate—it will be suspected transmissions and estimated cases. If we are going to lead the country through this pandemic properly, and if—I gently suggest—the Opposition is going to scrutinise the Government properly, we will not take estimates and suspected data as fact; we will take what is fact and use it appropriately.”

She told Mr Briggs: “Details of the total number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in each national health service board are published daily. Last week, we published initial unvalidated data on the number of suspected nosocomial Covid-19 incidents.

“The challenge is that, in all the data on nosocomial infection, it is not yet clear whether the individuals involved contracted the infection in the community prior to admission or in hospital.”

Ms Freeman said that while she had some figures, the ones he was seeking had not been validated, and that was why she did not have them with her in the chamber.

She added: “The unvalidated information, which is a compilation of reports from health boards, shows that there have been 125 Covid-19 incidents, which are associated at the moment with a potential 901 patient cases, of which 870 are confirmed Covid-19 cases and 31 are suspected, and—sadly—218 deaths.

“In addition, the same unvalidated information indicates 894 staff cases, including both confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases.  However, that position is very far from being definitive at the moment, not least due to the long incubation period of Covid-19, as is recognised by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.”

The Health Secretary – the Tories yesterday called for her to resign  – had been lured into a trap which suggested she was withholding the information the Tories were seeking.

She said: “I want to make available as much information as I can, as soon as I can, and information that is as accurate as possible. I will continue to do that.

“However, as I said in my letter of 4 June to Ms [Monica]Lennon (Labour) and in my response to the Government-initiated question on the same date, these are suspected transmissions, and to suggest otherwise would be wrong.”

But Miles Briggs persisted: “I am sure that the cabinet secretary will want to apologise to the families for the misleading picture that has developed around the spread of the Covid virus in hospital wards.

“The fact that she  [Ms Freeman] has referred to 125 incidents when we know that the number of deaths—[Interruption.] I hear SNP back benchers heckling me about the deaths that we have seen from Covid-19. It is important that we get clarity from this Government—[Interruption.]

Why did ministers decide to define almost 1,000 people as ‘incidents’? Will she now commit to publishing more accurate figures so that Parliament can have the true picture of what is happening in hospitals?”

Flustered, Ms Freeman replied: “In publishing unvalidated data, I was attempting to be helpful. It is a lesson that I have now learned.

“I say to Mr Briggs that I apologise to every single person who has lost a loved one as part of the pandemic. I think that we should all do that.

“Every single day, when we announce the numbers, we recognise that they are not just numbers but unique human beings who have been lost to their loved ones.

“If Mr Briggs thinks for one minute that I do not spend just about every minute of my day thinking about the impact of the pandemic, he is very much mistaken.

“I will continue to publish validated data. Although it has been clear all the way through—in the GIQ, in the letter and in what I have just said to Mr Briggs—that these are suspected transmissions, suspected cases and suspected deaths linked to them, and that the validated data will be published—by the end of the month, I hope—Mr Briggs has [not] chosen to take unvalidated data and pretend that it is validated.

“That is inexcusable. If anyone needs to apologise to the people of Scotland for sending them off with unvalidated nonsense, it is Mr Briggs. It is certainly not me.”

Miles Briggs came back with a flurry of punches to Ms Freeman’s solar plexus: “The information was provided to The Herald by the cabinet secretary. At the weekend, she admitted that hospital staff are not yet being tested regularly.

“Even more worrying is the fact that no plans have been published on how that testing is to be carried out.

The Health Secretary added: “I have already covered Mr Briggs’s point about the testing of NHS staff. I need to know whether the chief medical officer’s scientific advisory group and the nosocomial group that involves the chief medical officer and scientists from outwith the Government, as well as the chief nursing officer, take the view that we should test all NHS staff on a seven-day repetition or that we should test all NHS staff in particular clinical settings such as cancer and outpatient departments.

“It should be remembered that Governments across the UK have said from the outset that we will be informed by the science and clinical advice. Once we have that information, I will make the decision about how we will institute the testing. I have already asked for a delivery plan to be prepared for that information. Once that is done, I will make sure that Mr Briggs and members of Parliament are advised of what is happening.”

Mr Briggs then went for the knockout blow: “We are now three months into this crisis. Cancer services need to have this testing in place. After three months, that is not happening.

“Scotland has a capacity of 15,500 tests a day but barely one third of those tests are being done. That is a national scandal and ministers should be taking action to ensure that the tests are utilised.

 

“That failure has meant that people have entered hospital without coronavirus and have caught it there, and they have died when the testing could not be provided.

“In terms of where we are today with the development of test and protect, where has test and protect been for patients in Scotland?”

Ms Freeman looked around desperately for someone such as FM Nicola Sturgeon to come to her aid, or a fellow MSP to throw in the towel.

She pleaded: “Mr Briggs should please, please, please not assert what he does not know. He asserts, yet again, on the basis of suspected transmission, that people have caught the virus in hospital and have died. He does not know that and neither do I. When the data is validated—[Interruption.]  Mr Briggs is mumbling at me; he should be listening. When the data is validated Mr Briggs will know it, I will know it and we will deal with the facts at that point.

On using testing capacity, we have increased testing from a starting point of 350 tests per day in two NHS labs to 15,500. There is a point about using the testing for a purpose. Tomorrow, we will publish the data that I promised we would publish on the use of testing in our care homes of asymptomatic staff, and residents and staff in care homes where there has been a case.

“We will publish that data every week, and so we will see the progress that is being made by health boards against national policy. When I have the clinical advice that I have asked for, that will match the delivery plan that has been commissioned on testing NHS staff.

“The other area of testing, which is under way, is for all over-70-year-olds who are admitted to hospital. Surveillance testing is also under way and there are plans to expand it.

 

“The final area is that of those individuals who are symptomatic, whom we ask to go for a test straight away. At the moment, I do not expect that number to be high, because—Miles Briggs will understand this—we know from the R rate and the published data that the level of transmission in Scotland at this point is much lower than it was.

“We might see that particular number increase as we release lockdown measures, so test and protect is a vital tool. Miles Briggs needs to understand, do the homework and pay attention before making such assertions.” 

 

Labour’s Monica Lennon then stepped in an attempt to stop the fight between the Tories and the SNP. She said: “The cabinet secretary and Miles Briggs need to understand that arguments in the chamber will not bring back the people who caught Covid-19 in hospital and went on to die. Let us stick to some facts: I spent an hour on the phone today with a constituent who is absolutely heartbroken. Her mother was in hospital for several weeks, saw no one, was shielded from family and all visitors, was in a room on her own and died from Covid-19—it is on the death certificate.

“Families such as that of my constituent need answers. In this case, my constituent wrote to the First Minister weeks ago and got a reply from an official who told her to go to the ombudsman if she was not happy. That is not good enough. Families deserve answers and an apology; they need an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of this and, most important, we need such an inquiry to have confidence that, as we restart our national health service, people, patients and staff will be safe.”

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