Health Secretary faces criticism over ‘underwhelming’ hospital statement to parliament
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has come under fire from opposition parties for an “underwhelming” statement in response to issues at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH), after news of several infections in the children’s cancer ward linked to the water supply.
In a statement to parliament on Wednesday, Freeman apologised to the families of children at QEUH who “feel they have not had their questions answered”, saying “they are absolutely right to ask and pursue their questions, and they are entitled to have them answered and to receive the support they need”.
“There is no room in our health service for anyone to criticise whistleblowers, publicly or otherwise – or to put them in fear for the safety of their jobs,” she said
However, she also told MSPs: “I will not be rushed into wrong decisions simply to satisfy members of this chamber.”
She explained that after she announced a public inquiry into issues at QEUH and Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, she received correspondence from a bereaved parent “concerning the death of their child in 2017”. “This was the first notification I received about this tragic death,” she said.
Freeman said last weekend “other families have made contact with me” but declined to discuss the details of their cases publicly.
In recent days, opposition parties have called for QEUH health board, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, to be brought into special measures.
However, Freeman told parliament: “Over the weekend calls have been made for the board to be escalated. In NHS Scotland we have a clear process that is consistent across all boards and is led by the NHS Scotland chief executive to review levels of escalation for all boards.
“I have asked that this process of escalation be taken forward as quickly as is possible. I will update parliament on the outcome of that process as soon as it is concluded.”
In response, Labour shadow health secretary Monica Lennon said Freeman’s statement was “underwhelming and families deserve much, much better”.
“A passing mention of possible escalation measures against the health board is weak and it’s not good enough. It’s not clear what exactly the government is prepared to do, so I ask the cabinet secretary – does she have complete confidence in the current leadership of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde?
“Parents do feel completely failed and the wider public is losing confidence, where is the empathy and compassion for these families? Why should they place their trust in the health board and the cabinet secretary?”
In a fiery response to Lennon, Freeman said: “Well, I think they should place their trust in me because I am compassionate, I do have empathy and that’s precisely why I met those families and have undertaken the work I have done.
“I refute absolutely, from Ms Lennon and from anyone else, that I am careless or irresponsible on these matters. It could not be further from the truth. It may suit you to make those points for other reasons, but they are not true, and I refute them absolutely,” she said.
“Families do absolutely deserve answers. That is why I met them, that is why I gave detailed answers to 71 questions that families asked.
“The public inquiry is in part how we get to the bottom of how these issues have arisen. I do not accept that my reference to escalation is weak. There is a proper process and you know Ms Lennon, you should understand this, if we expect staff at whatever level in any organisation, to treat those they serve with respect, we must treat them with respect in the first place.
“There is a proper process for escalation undertaken by the chief executive of the NHS in Scotland. That process is underway with respect to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, it needs to be fair, it needs to be equitable across the boards, a decision will be taken, and I will advise this chamber of that decision.
“I will not be rushed into wrong decisions simply to satisfy members of this chamber.”
Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said Freeman’s statement would “do little to reassure or answer the many and increasing questions over patient safety” at QEUH.
“The families deserve to get the vital answers they seek and Ms Freeman has today simply posed more questions regarding what she knew and when around patients, as well as the SNP government not being informed or to this date provided with health board reports,” he said.
“We need to see openness and full transparency from SNP minsters and for the Scottish Parliament to be given full details.”
Freeman’s statement comes after Labour MSP for Glasgow Anas Sarwar raised at last week’s First Minister’s Questions that he’d been informed by a whistleblower of 26 infections at QEUH children’s cancer ward in 2017 possibly connected to the water supply and “in one case a child died as a result”.
Sarwar asked Freeman in parliament on Wednesday whether she would “guarantee” that any NHS staff who come forward as a whistleblower would not lose their job for doing so.
She replied: “Any whistleblower that comes forward should have their role protected.”
Outside parliament, Sarwar acknowledged Freeman’s commitment “that jobs of the brave NHS whistleblowers will be safe and that they will not be victimised for speaking out”.
“I hope that encourages more staff to come forward so that parents, patients and the public can find out the truth of what happened,” he said.
Scottish Greens health spokesperson Alison Johnstone called for the Scottish Government to take “urgent action to ensure that staff feel confident enough to report concerns”.
“Our NHS is its staff, and each and every one of those working in our health service, must feel able to raise concerns confidently and in confidence.
“It’s clear that there is much work required to institute a culture of openness and compassion. The health secretary must take urgent steps to address this concerning situation and restore confidence among patients and staff.”