Health secretary 'deeply regrets' pain of NHS shutdown and warns restart will not be a 'flick of the switch' moment

Plans to restart NHS services during the Covid-19 outbreak will not be a “flick of the switch” moment, the health secretary has warned.
Jeane Freeman said she deeply regrets the pain and anguish caused by the NHS shutdown, but stressed there was no other choice.Jeane Freeman said she deeply regrets the pain and anguish caused by the NHS shutdown, but stressed there was no other choice.
Jeane Freeman said she deeply regrets the pain and anguish caused by the NHS shutdown, but stressed there was no other choice.

Jeane Freeman warned that the “epidemic is far from over,” and said that the progress made to date could easily go into reverse.

Outlining plans to deliver as many normal services as possible over the next 100 days, during which time the NHS will remain on an emergency footing, Ms Freeman said she personally regretted the suffering brought about by the widespread suspension that has been in place since the start of lockdown.

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Addressing a Holyrood debate on the next steps for the NHS, she said: “I am acutely aware that the rapid reconfiguration of our NHS was not without costs to other patients. We all increasingly understand the cost of dealing with this pandemic to our health and wellbeing.

“It has brought worry, continuing pain, and anxiety for many. Stopping large and important areas of healthcare was never a decision I would have taken if I felt I had any other choice.

“I deeply regret the pain and the anguish that causes, but there was no other choice. Lives were, and still do, remain at stake.”

Ms Freeman said that the gains made in tackling the spread of the virus were “painfully fragile,” and it would “not take much” for them to be overturned, and ultimately reversed.

“We will start to remobilise the NHS, but I have to be clear that this will be no flick of the switch moment,” she explained.

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“Remobilising in these circumstances, where the virus is still with us, and the impact of changes in restrictions need to be carefully and continuously monitored, is a complex undertaking, balancing many factors, some of which will change over time.”

The restart process, she went on, constituted a “long term” and “complex” exercise, with services only resuming when it was as safe as possible for them to do so.

Other elements to the strategy, she said, would involve continuing to deal with Covid-19, and preparing the NHS for the upcoming winter season, including replenishing stockpiles.

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Ms Freeman confirmed GP services will begin to be more available and the pharmacy first service is being rolled out. A phased reintroduction of dental services will also take place over the course of this month.

Ms Freeman also said it was vital that NHS staff were supported and given adequate recovery time throughout the entire process.

Paying tribute to them, she said: “Because of the hard work of the men and women of the NHS, at no point in this outbreak to date has Scotland had insufficient acute or critical care capacity to deal with Covid-19 and emergency demand.

“I have asked a great deal of them, and now, we are about to ask them for more.”

Earlier at Holyrood, debate continued to focus on Covid-19 testing. Ms Freeman said the daily average of tests carried out last week stood at 4,624, not including home tests.

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie said the figure stood “well short” of targets, pointing out that the number of tests carried out on Monday - some 2,729 - was a record low, with only 2.1 per cent of the population having undergone tests.

Asked why Scotland had one of the worst testing rates in Europe, if not the world, Ms Freeman said the government had met its commitment to increasing capacity, which was used on a “demand led” basis.

Questioned by Miles Briggs, the Scottish Conservatives health spokesman, about reports that a further 600 people may have died in care homes could have died of Covid-19 than the figures from National Records of Scotland indicate, she replied: “I would not gainsay the professional reputation, competence or expertise of those medical practitioners who take exceptionally seriously the signing of death certificates.

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“Nor would I have the audacity to question whether they had recorded these matters properly.”

It comes as new figures show a sharp rise in elderly patients being “hastily” transferred from hospitals into care homes during the outbreak.

An overview of NHS data found a significant drop in the numbers of people being kept in hospital because alternative care options weren't available, with thousands of patients - including the elderly - being discharged.

Official data shows that in February and March, more than one in three patients - 1,500 - on delayed discharge were moved to care homes, while 2,800 were sent home.

Over the same period, the number of patients who had delayed discharges fell by 28 per cent as demand for beds soared during the pandemic.

Delayed discharges also fell by more than half between March and April this year, but last week deaths from coronavirus in care homes contributed to 54 per cent of the death toll.Cases of the virus have been reported in 60 per cent of Scotland's care homes, with 5,635 residents affected.

In an analysis of the data, Professor David Bell from the University of Stirling, said the new figures provide "clear evidence of the imperative to clear hospitals prior to the pandemic.”

He added: "Those moved away from hospital will have been accommodated in care homes or in a domestic setting.

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"It is likely that these arrangements were made in haste with probably the laudable motive of protecting patients from the virus."

Mr Bell said that failures in the process included "not testing those discharged to care homes, not considering how well-equipped care homes were to deal with residents who were potentially carriers of Covid-19 and not understanding the challenges facing care home staff.

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