Health secretary Jeane Freeman has admitted she knew in September that the death of a child with cancer at Scotland’s flagship hospital, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, was linked to contaminated water.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour MSP, who raised the claims from an NHS whistleblower at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament yesterday blasted Ms Freeman saying that the parents of the child who died had the right to know what had happened.
Mr Sarwar, who demanded a full public inquiry, said: “This isn’t just a scandal, it’s a heartbreaking human tragedy.”
Ms Freeman, defending her actions, said that she had been bound by patient confidentiality.
“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 said.
“Not revealing is not the same as not acting on it and I acted on it.”
The revelations of the contamination emerged following investigations into infections in children in the cancer wards at the hospital in 2018. Two wards were closed and patients moved as Health Protection Scotland investigated water contamination incidents.
Twenty three cases of blood stream infections with organisms potentially linked to water contamination were identified between 29 January and 26 September 2018.
But a whistleblower told Mr Sarwar that 26 cases of similar infections in children in the cancer wards were also found in 2017, with one child dying after contracting an infection.
Mr Sarwar said: “This is a remarkable confession from the health secretary.
“There are now incredibly serious questions for the government and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to answer, and a huge challenge to rebuild trust.
“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.”
He added: “I have had information shared with me which shows that 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.
“Central to this whistleblowing evidence is that one child died and, to this day, the parents have never been told the true cause of their child’s death. That isn’t just a scandal, it is a heart-breaking human tragedy.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) said: “In 2017, we investigated two individual cases of Stenotrophomonas which were not linked. We reported these cases both to the national expert body, Health Protection Scotland and to our board.
“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.
“It is extremely disappointing therefore that a whistle-blower has made this claim causing additional distress to families and to other families of cancer patients.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The pain of losing a child is unthinkable and we are determined to ensure that these allegations are fully investigated.
“This is why we have today asked Health Protection Scotland to work with NHSGGC to investigate these reports as a matter of urgency.
“Following her announcement of a public inquiry on 17 September to examine issues at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus, Glasgow and Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, Edinburgh, the cabinet secretary received a letter from a bereaved parent concerning the death of their child.
“Acting on this letter, Ms Freeman arranged for a representative from the health board to make urgent contact with the parent to ensure their questions are answered. She also made clear her intention that the public inquiry will provide an opportunity for the voices of families to be heard and to be provided with answers.
“The Scottish Government is at all times aware of the importance of patient confidentiality.”