Subdued Jeane Freeman gives evidence to UK covid inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon with local MPs Martin Docherty Hughes and Brendan O’Hara, former Health Minister Jeane Freeman and Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

By Democrat reporters

Scotland’s former health secretary is giving evidence to the UK inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

Jeane Freeman is facing questions from the inquiry on how prepared the Scottish government was for the pandemic.

She was supposed to be have been joined by Dr Catherine Calderwood, the country’s former chief medical officer.

But Dr Calderwood, pictured right,  who quit after breaking her own Covid lockdown rules, will now give evidence on another day.

The inquiry declined to provide an explanation for the late re-arrangement but its agenda says that all timings for hearings are provisional and subject to change.

Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are expected to appear before the inquiry on Thursday.

The inquiry was set up to examine the response to the virus by both the UK and Scottish governments, although Scotland will also have its own public inquiry.

It will also look into the impact of the pandemic and the lessons that can be learned for future virus outbreaks, with public hearings expected to continue until 2026.

A separate Scottish inquiry that will look specifically at the impact of the virus north of the border has been hit by delays after its original chairwoman quit for personal reasons and four members of the inquiry’s legal team also stood down.

Ms Freeman served as Scotland’s health secretary between 2018 and May 2021, when she stood down as an MSP ahead of the Scottish Parliament election.

She is a former Labour Party special adviser who quit and defected to the SNP.

She has previously said that the UK-wide lockdown was an “absolute necessity” in the early stages of the pandemic, but has admitted she regrets that the Scottish government discharged so many hospital patients into care homes without being tested for the virus.

She will be followed on Thursday by Ms Sturgeon and the former deputy first minister Mr Swinney, who will face questions about the preparations the Scottish government had in place for dealing with a pandemic.
Lawyers representing Scottish bereaved families, including some from West Dunbartonshire,  have been calling for all of Ms Sturgeon’s un-redacted WhatsApp messages and other relevant materials to be provided to the inquiry.

There was condemnatory reaction to the evidence of  Jeane Freeman, the former health secretary, at the UK Covid Inquiry.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, pictured left,  said: “She claimed that there were certainly areas where Scotland could have been better prepared.

“No one expects the Health Secretary to have been able to predict every twist and turn but Scottish ministers could certainly have been better prepared.

“The Scottish Government’s 2015 Silver Swan pandemic planning exercise was an utter failure. It claimed there was sufficient PPE stockpiled for even the worst-case scenario, didn’t mention testing and missed out care homes. As a result, the country was left playing catch up.

“The public inquiries must ensure that lessons are learned from the failures in pandemic planning, PPE and protecting care homes.”

On Tuesday, the UK’s former health secretary, the notorious Matt Hancock criticised the country’s pandemic planning ahead of Covid, saying it was too focused on dealing with deaths rather than averting them, when he gave his first evidence to the inquiry.

About 227,000 people died in the UK with Covid listed as one of the causes on their death certificate – including more than 17,000 in Scotland – after the first cases were detected early in 2020.

More than 44 million people were estimated to have caught the virus by February 2022.

Later Jeane Freeman told the inquiry that Scotland came close to running out of PPE during the pandemic.

Jeane Freeman, who was in the post from 2018 – 2021, told the UK Covid-19 inquiry that the country could have been better prepared for the coronavirus pandemic.

She said not all lessons were learned from previous virus training and admitted the Scottish Government had not completed all required actions on the training prior to the outbreak of coronavirus.

The former SNP MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley suffered from technical issues throughout the hearing – which she attended virtually – and at one point the inquiry’s chair remarked “are networking problems common to Glasgow?”.

Before she answered questions, she offered her condolences to those affected by Covid-19 and thanked NHS staff for their work during the pandemic.

During the event, she was asked about PPE provision in Scotland.

“There was sufficient PPE at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “Obviously there were serious challenges throughout that and although it’s fair to say we came close on some occasions, we did not run out of PPE in Scotland.”

In 2021, an Audit Scotland report found the country came within eight hours of running out of PPE in April of 2020, just a month after the UK-wide lockdown was announced.

Freeman said while Scotland learned lessons through virus planning exercises – including Exercise Iris, Exercise Silver Swan and Exercise Cygnus – not all required actions were completed.

Some of those actions, Freeman admitted, were still outstanding by the time coronavirus hit Scotland.

“It is fair to say that not all of the recommendations have been implemented or completed by the time the Covid pandemic struck,” she said.

The former health secretary told the inquiry that austerity had an impact on the Scottish budget, and while the NHS budget rose, it may have not been high enough.

Kate Blackwell KC asked the former health secretary: “Lessons haven’t been heeded, plans haven’t been updated, assumptions remained unchallenged and Scotland was not as prepared as it could have been, was it Ms Freeman, when Covid hit?”

“There were certain areas were Scotland could have been better prepared,” she responded, “in terms of the underlying structure and the delivery of those recommendations but Scotland, like countries throughout the world, was dealing with a virus that was unknown and new.

“So in that sense I don’t believe there is a plan that would have been possible, that would have been able, in and of itself, to cope with Covid-19.”

Former chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood, who stood down after breaking Covid rules, was due to give evidence on Wednesday, but will now do so at a later date.

Freeman’s appearance will be followed by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday.

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