Pigeon droppings, dirty water, a culture of secrecy, a lack of transparency and a showpiece hospital in which Kimberley Darroch’s 10-year-old daughter, Milly Main, who had leukaemia and was in recovery but, sadly, caught a deadly water-borne infection and was one of two children who died. Anas Sarwar and Nicola Sturgeon are also in the picture montage above.
By Bill Heaney
The scandal of deaths caused by dirty water and pigeon droppings at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Royal Sick Children’s Hospice might never have reached the public had it not been for the bravery of NHS whistleblowers.
This view was expressed in the Scottish Parliament at First Minister’s Questions by Anas Sarwar, the recently elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
He told Nicola Sturgeon: “We would never have got to this point if it was not for the bravery of national health service whistleblowers, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
“Can the First Minister confirm that every family of a child who had an infection as a result of the hospital environment has been informed—in particular, the families of the two children who tragically died?”
He added: “There has been a lot of focus on two reports this week, but, no matter how devastating they were or could have been, nothing is more devastating than the report that I have here.
“On Monday, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and Royal Hospital for Children: Case Note Review Overview Report was published.
“The review looked into infections of children and young people who were receiving treatment in the cancer ward at the Royal hospital for children, and its findings were heartbreaking.
“It found that almost 40 infections were ‘Most likely’ linked to the hospital environment and that, tragically, they played a part in the deaths of two children.”
His colleague, Jackie Baillie, right, who was at the time the MSP for Dumbarton constituency, said: “This is a devastating report which will be incredibly painful for families to read.
“My thoughts are with all those affected, as well all the frontline health workers who continue to provide such excellent care to patients.
“The failings uncovered are directly linked to the hospital environment and they would never have come to light if it wasn’t for the bravery of NHS whistle-blowers who spoke out despite repeated attempts to silence them by the health board.”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I agree with the member’s characterisation of the report. I also agree that there are questions that still require to be answered, and there are undoubtedly questions that families want to be answered, which is why we have instructed a full public inquiry into the matter. The inquiry was formally launched on 3 August last year, and we look forward to that inquiry doing its work in the months to come.
“I am pleased that the report has been published. It sets out a number of failings of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, as well as a series of recommendations that the Government expects the board to take forward and implement.
“I also welcome the publication of the case note review overview report. It was essential that those who were most deeply affected by the events at the Queen Elizabeth hospital had their voices heard and, as far as possible at this stage, their questions answered.
“With regard to families, the expert panel is—as, I am sure, Anas Sarwar is aware—now preparing individual reports for families who have been affected.
“It is expected that those reports will be issued to the families in the week beginning 12 April, in order that they will have not only the information from the overview report but specific information relating to the circumstances in which their own children were placed.”
Anas Sarwar said: “I welcome the public inquiry, but it has taken far too long for families to be informed of the possible outcomes for their children.
“We have a duty of candour law in Scotland, which means that there is a duty to inform all families. I suggest that there have been breaches of that duty of candour law.
“One of those families is the Darroch family. Kimberley Darroch’s 10-year-old daughter, Milly Main, had leukaemia and was in recovery but, sadly, caught a deadly water-borne infection and died.
“For years, Kimberley was never told the true cause of her child’s death. Nothing that I have done in my time in the Parliament has been more important or difficult than raising the case of Milly Main.
“I promised that I would not rest until I got answers and justice for Milly and all the families affected. Four years on from Milly’s death, we are finally starting to get answers. Milly’s family have demanded a fatal accident inquiry. They understand the delays due to Covid, but it is unfair to prolong their grief.
“I know that the First Minister cannot direct the Lord Advocate [James Wolffe], but, given the findings in this report, does she agree that there must now be that fatal accident inquiry?”
The First Minister assured Mr Sarwar: “I will genuinely try to be as helpful as I can be within the constraints of my responsibilities.
“First, I agree with the view that, I think, comes through in the overview report, that among the lessons to be learned by the health board are lessons around transparency and openness.
“That point has been firmly and clearly made, and it is one that I would expect the health board to reflect on seriously.
“I note that Anas Sarwar has worked closely with Milly’s family and Milly’s mum, in particular. To that family and the families of all the children affected, I say that there is a determination on my part and on the part of the Government to get the answers that are required but also to ensure that lessons are learned, and we will not rest until that is done as well.
“Milly’s care was reviewed as part of the case note review, and the expert panel is now preparing individual reports, which will include one on Milly.
“I know that Milly’s family are—as is their right—engaged in legal proceedings, and, obviously, I do not want to say anything that would prejudice any of that.
“The decision about whether there should be a fatal accident inquiry is not for me to make, and—this is important, given the separation of powers—I should not say anything that could be seen to be putting undue influence on the law officers, whose decision that is.
“That said, I completely understand and sympathise with the view of Milly’s family that there should be a fatal accident inquiry, and I am sure that the strength of that feeling is understood by the law officers, although they have considerations that they have to weigh in reaching that decision, as they have in all cases. However, I absolutely understand why Milly’s family want that inquiry to happen.”
Anas Sarwar told the FM: “We cannot put all of this on the health board. There are lessons for the health board, but there are also lessons for the Government. Nicola Sturgeon was the health secretary when the Queen Elizabeth university hospital was commissioned and built, and she was the First Minister when the hospital was opened.
“We now know that, one week before the hospital was opened, an independent report found that the water supply was not safe and posed a high risk of infection.
“That report was ignored and the hospital was opened anyway. That is another example of secrecy and failure that has had devastating consequences, and no one would have known about it without the bravery of national health service whistleblowers, which led to the issue being exposed in Parliament.
“This case is just one of the huge challenges that our country was facing even before Covid—there are countless others—and we know that, even when lockdown ends and the virus is defeated, we will need to focus all our energy and effort on delivering the strong and fairer recovery that Scotland needs.
“We cannot come back after 6 May and carry on with the old arguments, with politicians fighting with each other, focused on their own interests and not the national interest. Why can the First Minister not see that?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I will come on to that final point in a moment, because it is important and I have a particular perspective on it after this past year. First, though, on the issue of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, I agree that there are issues for the Government, as there are for the health board.
“I hope that, whatever people think about my decisions, my politics or my views on things, they agree that this is a Government that is prepared to face up to issues that arise and learn lessons.
“The public inquiry that has been instructed here is a key part of doing that. It will look at all the issues, parties and players that are involved and reach its conclusions, as is right and proper.
“I mean no disrespect to other ministers—every ministerial job is really important and carries heavy responsibilities—but, as health secretary, I recognised each and every day the particular import of the decisions that I made, so those things weighed heavily and I carried that responsibility very heavily. Therefore, when things go wrong, I absolutely realise the importance of recognising that and learning lessons.
“On the issue of focusing on the things that matter, plenty of things divide us in this chamber, and that is the hallmark of a healthy democracy. We should be able to have those debates and differences of opinion without resorting to personal attacks.
“That is what I hope will change in the next session of Parliament. Some people will agree with the decisions that I have taken and some people will not, but, every day over the past year, I have focused 100 per cent on trying to lead a country through a crisis, and that will continue to be my focus for as long as I am First Minister.
“The crisis changes our perspective. It has changed my perspective and, as we come back from the election, although we have differences of opinion and we should debate those things rigorously, the future of the country really matters, and it matters that we get it right.
“We should not shy away from debating the powers of this Parliament and the values that guide our recovery, but we should do so respectfully, civilly and with the recognition that, although we might disagree, we all have the best interests of this country at heart. I hope that those of us who come back after the election will bring that spirit back with us into the new session of Parliament.”
The Queen Elizabeth II University Hospital and Royal Children’s Hospital, which serve patients from West Dunbartonshire and Argyll.