By Bill Heaney
Scottish Labour Party leader Anas Sarwar today took First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to task over Scotland’s unpreparedness for the Coronavirus pandemic.
He said emphatically at FMQs that the report published today by Audit Scotland “lays out the truth about personal protective equipment provision during the pandemic. It confirms that the Scottish Government was not prepared”.
Mr Sarwar said: “I accept that the specific challenges of Covid-19 might have been unique, but a major pandemic was not unexpected. Three planning exercises were held: Silver Swan in 2015, Cygnus in 2016, and Iris in 2018. All three made recommendations about PPE and all three were ignored.
“When Covid struck, that meant that we did not have adequate supplies and struggled to cope, particularly in the early stages. Why did the First Minister and the Scottish Government not act on those three reports?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “We acted on all those reports. I have said before and I will say again that whether it is on PPE, the response to previous exercises, or indeed many other aspects of the pandemic, the Government, in common with Governments all over the world no doubt, did not get everything right. We have lessons to learn and, as I have said many times already, I do not shy away from that.
“I am sure that there will be more scrutiny in the months to come, but one of the legitimate criticisms is that many of us, particularly western Governments, rested too much of our planning and preparedness on thinking that a pandemic would be a flu pandemic.
“That is relevant to the Audit Scotland report, and the remarks that I heard from Auditor General on the radio this morning reflected on some of our preparations around PPE. I recognise that.
“However, anybody who has read the Audit Scotland report and who listened to the Auditor General this morning will also have heard something else. I will quote the Auditor General:
“The Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland worked well together under extremely challenging circumstances to set up new arrangements for the supply and distribution of PPE” across the country.
She maintained: “At no point did we not have PPE. At no point did we run out of PPE. At times, central stocks were very low, as they would have been in many countries given the intense global demand.
“Again, as is reflected in the report, we worked hard on the supply to make sure that health boards across the country had supplies of PPE, often on a same-day turnaround. We now have domestic supply chains for PPE that are much better than they were before the pandemic, when about 100 per cent of all our PPE was imported. The majority is now manufactured here in Scotland.
“There are lessons to learn, but I pay tribute to everybody in NHS National Services Scotland and in health boards across the country who worked hard to ensure that Scotland did not run out of PPE at any point.”
But Anas Sarwar was adamant: : “The First Minister may not have run out of PPE on her spreadsheet, but it ran out in hospitals and in our care settings. If she asks the healthcare workers, they will tell her the truth.
“Today’s Audit Scotland report confirms that central stocks of PPE were so low at points that they could have run out within eight hours. In April last year, intensive care unit doctors raised the alarm that they were having to reuse visors.
“In Glasgow and Lanarkshire, out-of-date PPE with fake labels that had been put on top of the expiry dates was being used, and more than 1,000 social care staff were forced to organise a petition to get PPE in their workplace. Across Scotland, we heard the same horrifying story and saw tragic images. A lack of PPE had devastating consequences. It cost lives.
“In Scotland, a sixth of all Covid cases admitted to hospital during the first wave were healthcare workers or members of their household. In total, 21 healthcare staff and 28 social care workers have, tragically, lost their lives to Covid-19 in Scotland.
“Does the First Minister accept that that is partly the consequence of her Government ignoring its own warnings and not being prepared?”
The First Minister persisted: “No, I do not think that that is the case, although there is much scrutiny still to come of the Government’s handling of the matter. I welcome that and think that it is important.
“I pay tribute to everybody who worked in our national health service in the early days of the pandemic and everybody who has worked in it up until today. People are still working hard in the face of the pandemic.
Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) has been in sort supply during the pandemic, claims Sarwar.
“On whether Scotland ran out of PPE, I accept that this sounds like a bit of an arid political debate to somebody who works on the front of our health service, but if Anas Sarwar does not want to take my word for a simple statement of fact, I will again refer him to what the Auditor General said on the radio this morning, which was that people worked really hard to ensure that we did not run out.
“I know and accept that supply was low at times. I was centrally involved in our response at that time. The Audit Scotland report says that stocks were low, but there are two other points that have to be made.
“First, that is a reference to centrally held stocks. As the report recognises, additional stocks were held at that time in local health board areas. Secondly, the most fundamentally important point—again, I will quote directly from the Audit Scotland report—is that supplies did not run out.
The report says:
“there were always incoming orders to help manage the supply, with stock arriving and being shipped out to NHS boards on the same day at some points.”
“That is down to the work of NHS National Services Scotland and people throughout the country.
When Richard Leonard was in Anas Sarwar’s place, he, too, used to raise the point about expiry dates. At the heart of Anas Sarwar’s argument, which is not an illegitimate one, is the idea that we should have bigger stockpiles. However, in relation to the stockpiles that we did have, when material that has been in a stockpile for a while is taken out of it, it often has to be revalidated because it will have passed an expiry date. Richard Leonard described that as
“Palming off out-of-date PPE”,
but that is, basically, what happens when there is a stockpile. However, we had arrangements to ensure that PPE was available.
“We will continue to take steps. We have made significant changes to the supply chain and the distribution routes.
“I will make a final point. Mutual aid arrangements were in place across the United Kingdom. At no point did Scotland have to make use of those mutual aid arrangements, but we provided mutual aid to England and Wales, following requests. We did not have to ask anybody else for mutual aid, because we did not run out of PPE.”
Anas Sarwar refused to back off: “I do not deny that the Government worked hard, but I will take the word of the ICU doctors and the general practitioners who sent the pictures of out-of-date PPE, and I will take the word of the 1,000-plus care work staff who had to sign a petition to demand that the Government give them PPE.
“Those are the people whose word I will take. I accept that the ministers had to make tough decisions, but the hardest decision was for those who risked exposing themselves to the virus, and possibly taking it home to their family, in order to care for others. They are the people we should be thinking about today.
“The law requires that workplace-related deaths be reported for investigation. However, it is left to the employer to determine whether
“there is reasonable evidence that a work-related exposure is likely to be the cause of disease”.
“We have all applauded NHS staff and care workers on the front line, and we rightly call them heroes. Some of our heroes have, tragically, died, and their families deserve answers. The procurator fiscal is currently investigating only 27 deaths of workers across all sectors, but we know that 49 health and social care workers have lost their lives to Covid.
“All of those deaths should be referred to the Crown Office for a full and proper investigation, to establish that they were linked to the workplace. Can the First Minister give a commitment today that that will happen?”
The First Minister said: “I want to ensure that every relevant aspect of the handling of this pandemic, whether in general terms or as it affected individuals, is properly and robustly scrutinised. I do not just welcome that scrutiny—I think that it is really important.
“With regard to prosecutions, I ask members to cast their minds over the past few months and to think about how often, in completely different contexts, we have heard misguided allegations about how governments have tried to politicise the role of prosecutors. Prosecutors act entirely independently, which is right and proper, and any politician who suggests otherwise should think about that point.
“The matters we are discussing are important. Anas Sarwar said today that we should think about those who work hard on the front line of our health service. I agree with that, but there is not a single day that I do not think about them.
“Anas Sarwar mentioned care homes. The Audit Scotland report narrated that, before the pandemic, under all Administrations in the lifetime of this Parliament, the Government, through NHS National Services Scotland, did not supply PPE to the care home sector or to primary care. Instead, those sectors used to get it directly from private suppliers. One of the changes that we made was to directly supply the care home sector from the national health service.
“There are undoubtedly lessons to learn, but it is not wrong in my view to say that we did not run out and that that was a good thing in the teeth of a global pandemic, when competition for supplies of PPE was so intense. Although I hope that we will not need the same volumes in the future, we now have significantly higher stocks of PPE.
“The Audit Scotland report and the words of the Auditor General reflect that we have worked hard every step of the way to ensure that our staff had PPE, and we will continue to do that each and every day.”