Health Secretary Jeane Freeman and her partner university spin doctor Susan Stewart, left. Above: Reuters news agency picture of Freeman looking fed up.
NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman’s partner is key member of group that called for students to return to uni campuses, said the headline on an exclusive story in the widely read Sunday Mail.
If things had been going badly for Freeman up to that point, they had now become decidedly worse. Her in box was already full to overflowing with serious questions that had to be answered in relation to deaths in care homes; infected people being cleared out of hospitals into care homes; deficiencies and deaths at the £840 million showpiece Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow; delays and completion of the two main children’s hospitals in Glasgow and Edinburgh; perceived inability to tackle the Covid crisis which continues to drag on and on.
Even the fact that a vaccine is on the horizon is little comfort to Freeman given the government’s woeful performance over test and trace and the burach that was the distribution of annual flu injections.
Now Sunday Mail reporter John Ferguson has revealed in the country’s biggest tabloid that the Scottish Government had been heavily criticised for a policy U-turn that allowed undergraduates to pack into halls of residence in September.
And that the Health Secretary’s spin doctor partner, Susan Stewart, who formerly worked for the Scottish Government and the University of Glasgow, is a key member of the university industry body which lobbied ministers to allow students back on campus.
The SNP government in which Freeman is a leading member has been heavily criticised for a policy U-turn that allowed undergraduates to pack into halls of residence in September.
Outbreaks of Covid-19 quickly followed in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, forcing thousands of students to self-isolate.
Last week, The Democrat published a story by investigative journalists at The Ferret that Freeman wanted to suspend FOI legislation in response to the coronavirus pandemic. She made the request as the Government was preparing emergency legislation.
Additionally, the Sunday Mail revealed Freeman’s long-term partner Susan Stewart was vice-convener of the organisation’s committee tasked with ensuring the “best possible recovery from Covid-19 and the best possible learning experience for students”, and also “informing Scottish Government policy impacting on learning and teaching”.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, pictured right, told the Sunday Mail: “It’s hugely concerning that the Scottish Government caved in to the pressure over this issue so swiftly and seemingly with such little resistance.
“It’s particularly alarming given that there appears to be such secrecy, with the refusal of Scottish Labour’s freedom of information requests about how this decision was arrived at.
“We need full and immediate disclosure about how and in what way this decision was reached, with total transparency about all communications between ministers and those lobbying over this issue.
“A failure to provide this will inevitably lead to suspicions about murky decision-making processes, which are totally against the spirit of devolution and reminiscent of old-style stitch-ups in smoke-filled rooms during the pre-devolution Tory era of the Thatcher and Major governments.”
Stewart is the director of the Open University in Scotland as well as being a senior member of Universities Scotland’s learning and teaching committee.
The Scottish Government’s decision to drop guidance that stated “work and study that can be done remotely must be done so” meant universities were able to collect full fees and rents from returning students, including lucrative overseas arrivals.
And emails released through FOI suggest the move was linked to the universities’ desire to have the largest possible classes.
A policy adopted on September 1 contradicted previous Government advice on social distancing and replaced an earlier draft of guidance signed off on August 30.
Emails show that in the run-up Universities Scotland director Alastair Sim complained aspects of the draft guidance “sound more restrictive on in-person teaching than I recall”.
Meanwhile deputy director David Lott suggested the line “work and study that can be done remotely must be done so” be replaced by a statement saying the appropriate blend was up to institutions.
The relaxation of the rules allowed tens of thousands of students to move around the country to take up places in halls from the end of September.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: “Susan Stewart, as director of the Open University in Scotland, has been a real asset to the higher education sector in Scotland for a number of years.
“Elected by her fellow principals, her role as vice convener of our learning and teaching committee is about ensuring students across Scotland receive the best teaching and learning at university as possible.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have had no contact with Ms Stewart on the issues of social distancing in universities and the return of students to campuses – and any suggestion that we have is entirely incorrect.”
The Sunday Mail revealed in September how hundreds of students had fled university campuses to return home after being told to quarantine due to Covid outbreaks.
Many booked flights and trains after the Scottish Government ordered them to stay put and avoid all social gatherings to tackle the spike in Covid cases.
Those who remained claimed it was like being in prison and posted notices to that effect as university bosses had threatened them with expulsion if they did not comply.