By Bill Heaney

Dumbarton Labour MSP Jackie Baillie pinned First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the walls of the Holyrood chamber on Wednesday over her lack of leadership and the cack-handed manner in which the Scottish Government has handled the Covid 19 pandemic which has taken more than 6,000 lives.

Conservative interim leader Ruth Davidson raised the fact that over the past 10 months and even before that, Governments across the world made mistakes in their planning for and handling of the pandemic.

However, a new report by Audit Scotland had identified a lack of preparedness, on the part of the Scottish Government, stretching back more than a decade.

Interim Labour leader Jackie Baillie; interim Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and First Minister NIcola Sturgeon were involved in a feisty debate in parliament.

Ms Davidson said specifically that the report charged that Scottish National Party ministers failed to implement key recommendations that were made after pandemic planning exercises in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

The First Minister conceded that the Audit Scotland report is “important” but added: “The Scottish Government and NHS in Scotland responded quickly to the rapidly developing pandemic”.

However, Labour interim-leader Baillie was not impressed.

She told MSPs: “The issues highlighted by Audit Scotland’s report are so important that I make no apology for covering the subject again. The First Minister has said that the pandemic is unprecedented, and she is right.

“However, the report that has been published today makes it clear that a pandemic should have been anticipated.

“The Government knew that a pandemic could threaten the lives of people across Scotland. It was told that our social care system would struggle to cope. It was warned that access to personal protective equipment for our nurses and doctors simply was not good enough. “

Ms Baillie added: “We have now learned that the Government did not act on any of those warnings. In 2015, 2016 and 2018, the Government received clear recommendations that it simply failed to act on and the areas that were neglected  became areas of significant challenge during the pandemic.

“The First Minister referenced flu planning, but the flu pandemic planning that the Government carried out repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities in PPE supplies and in social care—the very areas of challenge in the pandemic.

“If the Scottish Government had acted in advance, we would have been in a better position to respond, whatever the virus was.

“The First Minister had warning after warning after warning, so was her failure to act negligence or incompetence?

The First Minister said: I am not even going to respond to that, because it is actually quite demeaning—not to me, but to the people across Government and across the country who have worked every single day to try to deal with the crisis.

“Jackie Baillie says that we should have anticipated a pandemic. Almost on my first day, and certainly in my first week, in government as the health secretary, I was briefed on the potential for a pandemic—for a flu pandemic—and we did a lot of preparation.

“We had a flu pandemic in 2009, and we learned lessons from that as well. One of the significant issues that we have to reflect on is the fact that not enough of our planning and preparedness was for a pandemic of the nature of the one that we have been dealing with. Covid and severe acute respiratory syndrome—SARS—type viruses are very different from flu.

“Those are lessons that we have been learning and will continue to learn. It is simply not true, and it is not borne out by the facts, to say that we were not prepared on PPE, although, as I have acknowledged not just today but previously, we had issues around the distribution of PPE early on, which we took early action to resolve.

“In addition, guidance was in place for care homes, and it has adapted and evolved as our understanding of the virus has adapted and evolved.”

But Jackie Baillie told her: “I make no criticism of the staff, who I think have been hardworking and absolutely brilliant throughout the pandemic, but the First Minister needs to stop hiding behind them, because this is a matter of leadership and that is something that she is responsible for.

“I repeat: flu pandemic planning that the Government carried out repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities in PPE supplies and in social care. Had the First Minister paid attention to that, as she says that she did, we would not be in this position.

Crosslet House Care Home in Dumbarton, where lives were lost to Covid.

“Nowhere has the impact of the pandemic been more distressing than in our care homes. One in every three people to have lost their lives from Covid-19 were care home residents.

“That is more than 3,000 families who have been bereaved by an epidemic that raced through our care homes—the very places where we expect our elderly and our vulnerable to be safe.

“However, concerns about the ability of social care to cope during a pandemic were highlighted five years ago when it was recommended that the Government ‘ensure a wide understanding of plans for distribution of PPE and prioritisation of key staff’.

“That recommendation was made in April 2016. It was the end of March 2020—nearly four years later, when the country was already gripped by the pandemic—before the Scottish Government had a PPE distribution model for social care.

“We know that the PPE was not adequate and there was an initial shortage of supply because health and social care staff told us so. The First Minister is shaking her head, but those are the very staff we praise for their efforts and they were telling us what was going wrong.

“Had the First Minister listened to the warnings about the threat facing social care in a pandemic—and, yes, in the context of flu pandemic planning, too—lives could have been saved. Why did she not listen?”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “First, I have not, in any way, hidden or tried to hide on a single day since the pandemic struck. In fact, on many of the days when, to the best of my ability, I have been seeking to lead the country through the pandemic, Jackie Baillie has been writing letters to the BBC to try and stop me from briefing the public on a daily basis. Therefore, perhaps it is the fact that this Government has shown leadership that Jackie Baillie finds so difficult to take.

“Because we learned lessons from the swine flu pandemic that we had in 2009, as well as the exercises that were done, we had a stockpile of PPE at the start of this pandemic. As I said earlier, that is why we never ran out of PPE and why we quickly resolved the early issues that we faced with regard to the distribution of PPE within the health service.

“To this day, there are on-going concerns from staff, which we listen to very carefully, about the precise nature of the PPE and whether it is adequate to protect them from the virus, particularly as we face new variants. Our clinical advisers listen to and discuss those concerns, so that we can respond as necessary. As I have already said, we took additional steps to top up the PPE supplies that care home providers already had.

An ambulance crew wearing the inadequate PPE that was reluctantly dished out to them at the start of the Covid pandemic. Picture by Bill Heaney

“We have taken all those steps. Has everything gone as we would have wanted? No; we have made mistakes and done things that, had we had the knowledge that we have now, we would have done differently, and we learn from those as we go. Every day, this Government—with the dedication of people not just in our health and social care workforce, but in many sectors of society—has tried to get through this as well as we can, and every day we will continue to do that.

“Jackie Baillie talks about care homes. Because we learned the lessons from care homes earlier last year, we made the decision to focus on getting the maximum number of people in care homes vaccinated—not just offered the vaccine, but vaccinated—even if, early on, that slowed down the rest of the programme.

“That decision was—certainly by implication—criticised by Jackie Baillie and Ruth Davidson just a couple of weeks ago. That says it all. They will criticise whatever we do, but we will continue to get on with the job of keeping the people of this country as safe as we can.”

But the Dumbarton MSP refused to be deflected from her lack of leadership allegations.

She said: ” I am clear that there was no leadership in preparing for the pandemic. The First Minister referenced stockpiles of PPE but, from staff on the ground, we know that they were inadequate and well out of date.

“The whole point is not to learn after the event but to learn beforehand, so that we put in measures to prevent the scale of death that we have witnessed.

“The evidence is that, when presented with recommendations, the Government simply did not listen; it was too slow to prepare and too slow to act. We may have reacted quickly—I welcome that and thank national health service and care staff for doing so—but we were simply not prepared.

“Here is an opportunity to listen and act. Do not just clap for health and social care workers; listen and act when they ask for enhanced PPE to protect them and those they care for from the new Covid variants.

“We know that the rate of hospital-contracted Covid is still far too high.

“Since the start of the pandemic, at least 3,115 people have contracted Covid-19 in hospital. In the week ending 24 January, the Scottish Government rejected calls from Scottish Labour for enhanced PPE to protect staff and patients from the new variants and dismissed the concerns of the very staff whose attitude and evidence we all value so highly.

“That same week, at least 228 people contracted Covid-19 on hospital wards. Will the First Minister listen? Will she act and give health and care staff the enhanced protection that they need and deserve?

Ms Sturgeon denied she had dismissed those calls. 

She said: “We did not dismiss those calls. As a politician and former lawyer, I am not qualified to decide the technical specifications of PPE. That is what I have clinical advisers for, and every time that health or social care staff say that they think that they need a higher specification, we ask our clinical advisers to consider that and come to a view. Until now, that has been done on a four-nations basis. We will never dismiss those claims.

“The advice to me and to the Government is that the specification of the PPE that is being used is appropriate for even the new variant of Covid. If that advice changes, so, too, will the decisions that we take on PPE.

“Not just as First Minister—although that is the most important point here—but as the sister and sister-in-law of people who work on the front line of the national health service, I would never dismiss the views of those on the front line of the NHS. We will continue to take those decisions on the basis of the best advice.

“We will continue, too, to learn lessons, just as we learned lessons from the 2009 pandemic and from the exercises. We will also learn the real lessons from the current pandemic, which are that we must learn as we go and must not assume that the pandemics that we will face are the ones that we have faced in the past.

“I think that the real criticism of Governments such as ours is that we should have been better prepared for a SARS-type virus and should have relied less on flu preparedness. I am able to say that, but let us engage properly on such matters, rather than just chuck soundbites across a parliamentary chamber.”

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