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Jeane Freeman under pressure after Glasgow hospital whistleblower reveals water infection death

Scottish Labour MSP for Glasgow Anas Sarwar raised the issue in FMQs on Thursday. Image credit: Parliament TV

Jeane Freeman under pressure after Glasgow hospital whistleblower reveals water infection death

Cabinet Secretary for Health Jeane Freeman has come under more pressure after a whistleblower claimed contaminated water at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) led to patient infections and the death of a child.

Freeman has admitted she found out about a child’s death at the hospital in September, which Scottish Labour MSP for Glasgow Anas Sarwar said was “a remarkable confession”, and the Scottish Government and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde had “incredibly serious questions” to answer.

In First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Sarwar said: “Something is seriously wrong at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus, since its opening there have been a series of scandals, but this one has broken me.

“I have had information shared with me which shows senior managers have been repeatedly alerted to the fact that a previous review failed to include cases of infection related to the water supply in 2017,” Sarwar told Scottish Parliament.

“Central to this whistleblowing evidence is that there were 26 infections at the children’s cancer ward and in one case a child died as a result. To this day, the parents have never been told.

“This isn’t just a scandal, it’s a heartbreaking human tragedy.”

He called for the health secretary to “please personally intervene to seek answers to get justice for the families and to take the necessary actions so that this never happens again”.

Freeman told the BBC’s Reporting Scotland programme on Thursday evening that she found out about the child’s death in September.

“Well I receive a great deal of correspondence from individuals about particular patient issues and I don’t reveal that, because that would be entirely wrong for me to do,” she told the programme. “Not revealing it is not the same as not acting on it, and I acted on it.”

In September, Freeman announced a public inquiry into issues at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow and Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh, following several patient deaths at the Glasgow hospital due to infections that were linked to issues with the ventilation system.

In response to this revelation, Sarwar said: “This devastating death has been covered up since September. Jeane Freeman says she acted, but the most important act would be to inform the parents. At the centre of this scandal is a tragic loss of life, and the priority must be seeking answers for the parents who lost a child.”

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs went one step further and called for Freeman’s resignation over the incident.

“There’s no way Jeane Freeman can continue in the role now the details of this case have been made clear,” Briggs said. “It should not take a whistleblower and an opposition MSP to drag the truth out of this SNP government. It’s completely unacceptable. Patients will be absolutely furious that such a serious failure has been covered up by this SNP government.

“The health secretary must apologise to the family and resign or, if she refuses, be sacked.”

An NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde spokesperson told Holyrood it was “not possible to conclude that these infections were connected to the water supply”.

“It is extremely disappointing therefore that a whistleblower has made this claim causing additional distress to families and to other families of cancer patients,” the spokesperson said.

They said the health board investigated “two individual cases of Stenotrophomonas” in 2017, “which were not linked.”

“We reported these cases both to the national expert body Health Protection Scotland and to our board. These cases were also reviewed again in July 2019 when the clinical view was that no further action was required.

“At the time of the initial investigation into these cases, national guidance did not include a requirement for health boards to test for Stenotrophomonas in the water supply. Stenotrophomonas is widespread and is present throughout the general environment. 

“As no tests were carried out at the time, it is not possible to conclude that these infections were connected to the water supply.”

The spokesperson also said: “When a patient dies in our care, our clinical teams discuss with family members the cause of death and the factors that have contributed to this, where they are known.

“Patients who are very sick are prone to infections and we closely monitor all infections to ensure patients are appropriately cared for.”

In response to questions, Freeman told Holyrood after her announcement of a public inquiry on 17 September, she “received correspondence on 20 September from the bereaved parent of a child who had died after receiving treatment at the QEUH in 2017”.

“This was the first time I had been made aware of this child’s death. On the date I received the letter, the ward which haemotology/oncology patients were receiving care, 6A, was closed to new admissions and had been since August 2019,” Freeman said.

She said on 23 October she wrote to the parent and expressed condolences “for their very sad loss and I would like to again take this opportunity to do so”.

Freeman said she had “checked and been assured” that communication had been established between the family and senior staff from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, to provide necessary information for the family.

“I also made clear to the parent my intention that the public inquiry will be an opportunity for the voices of families to be heard and for answers to be provided.

“I am at all times aware of the importance of patient confidentiality and so rightly I believe, I did not treat this correspondence as a public matter.

“The ward in which the child concerned in the correspondence I received on 20 September, 2A/2B, was closed and undergoing remedial and upgrading work. Any suggestion that children were at risk after I received this information is therefore incorrect.”

In a letter to Sarwar on Friday evening, Freeman reiterated this information and said “I am of course happy as always to discuss these and other concerns you may have directly with you”.

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