Former Scottish health secretary intervened in delayed Covid care home deaths data release

Scotland’s health secretary was central to an intervention in delaying the release of Covid-19 death rates in individual care homes, it can be revealed.

Earlier this month, The Scotsman revealed a last-gasp intervention from the Scottish Government involving former economy secretary Fiona Hyslop led to the delay of the publication of the number of Covid-19 deaths in each of Scotland’s care homes for more than three-and-a-half months and until after the Holyrood election in May.

Now further disclosures show Ms Hyslop was not the only minister involved in the intervention.

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Former health secretary Jeane Freeman. Picture: Fraser Bremner-Pool/Getty ImagesFormer health secretary Jeane Freeman. Picture: Fraser Bremner-Pool/Getty Images
Former health secretary Jeane Freeman. Picture: Fraser Bremner-Pool/Getty Images
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Former health secretary Jeane Freeman also directed officials on how to respond to the impending data publication.

The Scottish Conservatives said the revelations showed the intervention appeared to be a “cynical attempt” to avoid scrutiny, while Labour called for full transparency around the issue.

Correspondence released by the Scottish Government shows Ms Freeman, who stepped away from frontline politics at the Scottish Parliamentary election earlier this year, led the intervention from the government’s side.

Emails state that she was concerned “individual care homes … were not aware that this data was being published”.

They continue, stating Ms Freeman asked National Records of Scotland (NRS) to “facilitate discussions with the relevant stakeholders in order to discuss the data that they are publishing with a view to minimising the distress caused to families and care home staff by this information becoming public”.

Confusion within the NRS around ministerial involvement in the decision to publish is also clear.

In one email, the chief executive of the NRS, Paul Lowe, writes: “Can I ask where Ms Freeman is on issue now, following her earlier message to Ms Hyslop i.e. is [redacted] still wishing to seek routes (presumably advice from you and your team) to prevent publication of this information or are we now in the territory of managing how the information is released and engagement with key stakeholders in advance of this?”

It is not clear who the redacted individual refers to, but it is likely to be either a government official working on behalf of Ms Freeman or the health secretary herself.

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As previously revealed, this intervention led the NRS to delay publishing the data until after care sector and local council representatives were informed and could submit objections to the information commissioner.

This led directly to a U-turn from the NRS, which chose to continue to fight the release of the data despite being told by legal advisers it was “highly unlikely” it would win.

However, it is clear the health secretary did not intend to block the release of the information in perpetuity, even if her actions led to the delay in publication until after the election.

One email states: “The Cab Sec has asked me to reiterate that it was never, at any stage, her intention to prevent publication of this data.”

The disclosures from the NRS and the Scottish Government in response to identical requests are also notable in their differences.

References to the issue of NRS independence from ministerial interference being raised by agency officials is redacted from the Scottish Government’s disclosure.

Government officials also deemed that a section of an email from an NRS official to a government counterpart, released by the NRS, should be omitted entirely from its own disclosure.

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It stated: “Obviously if ministers are still looking at options as to how such a release of data should be avoided it would impact on the nature of the conversations with stakeholders?”

Meanwhile, the NRS failed to disclose the fact Ms Freeman was involved in discussions around the release of the data and failed to disclose a key email in which a government official stated the reasons why the then-health secretary was involved in discussions, both details released by the Scottish Government.

Responding to the revelations, Scottish Conservative social care spokesperson Craig Hoy said the revelation “reinforces” calls for a public inquiry into Covid-19 in Scotland.

He said: “These new revelations involving Jeane Freeman only raise further questions about what ministers were hoping to achieve by intervening with NRS at this critical point.

“This important report was all set to be published, but it appears that SNP politicians sought to use their influence to ensure it remained hidden from voters until after the Holyrood election.

“We know that the SNP Government will go to extreme lengths to try and avoid scrutiny when things go wrong and this appears to be just another cynical attempt to do so.

“The delay in this report meant that grieving families had to wait much longer for answers to key questions about what really happened in our care homes.”

Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “These revelations raise fresh questions about the delays to this report and the former health secretary’s role in this.

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“Whether intentional or not, this last-minute intervention resulted in this crucial report being kept from the public until after the election.

“The government has form for being secretive and obstructive when it comes to releasing information and this has muddied the waters on this further.

“The public deserve clear answers on what happened here, and how we can ensure reports of this nature are always published quickly and without any opportunity for political interference.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Publication was a matter for NRS and the Scottish Information Commissioner agreed to allow additional representations from the care sector.

"As is clear from the material released, the health secretary was not trying to prevent release of the report, but rightly making sure Scottish Government and NRS officials made care homes and their staff aware of its impending publication given the distress it could cause to recently bereaved families.”

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