Covid Scotland: Health watchdog's process of shielding SNP ministers hidden from public after controversy

Officials at Scotland’s public health watchdog continue to protect the reputation of SNP ministers in a way that is no longer possible to scrutinise, it can be revealed.

Reports and publications released by Public Health Scotland continue to be given a “reputational risk score” that includes consideration as to whether a report could be “interpreted as a critique” of Scottish Government ministers, but is no longer officially recorded by the agency.

The process, which opposition said called into question the watchdog’s independence from government, was stopped in November 2020, but is now “undertaken informally and not recorded”, PHS officials told The Scotsman.

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Opposition parties have claimed it is “astonishing” the practice was not stopped and is instead being hidden from the public.

Public Health Scotland have published several key papers on Scottish Government policy around Covid-19

Scottish Labour labelled it a “murky relationship”, while the Scottish Conservatives said it was “too typical of the SNP”.

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In June, The Times revealed the use of the “communications framework” in which officials at PHS gave coming publications a score on whether they may cause reputational damage.

Scores of four and above would be considered “very high/severe” and could cause “sustain or widespread criticism of the Scottish Government”.

This includes considering potential damage to Scottish Government ministers, Cosla and the UK Government, and the potential the report could be “politicised” by opposition.

The scores were applied weekly, the disclosure states, and covered publications due to be released in the following four weeks.

The Scotsman can reveal the process was used more than 30 times between June and November last year before the agency stopped formally recording the practice.

Instead officials state that reputational risk scoring is still undertaken by communications staff “informally” and is “not recorded”, making the application of the process impossible to scrutinise.

This was criticised by Scottish Labour, which called on the SNP to remove “spin duties” from PHS’s remit.

The party’s health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie said: “It’s clear that the SNP is still counting on Public Health Scotland to spin for them.

“It’s astonishing that after these questionable practices were exposed, the response wasn’t to stop the practice, but to hide it from public scrutiny.

“It’s clear that this murky relationship has come into play on a number of key publications, casting an unnecessary shadow on this important work.

“The public need to have faith that PHS are focused solely on the facts and not the optics.”

Annie Wells, the Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, echoed the concerns.

She said: “This is all too typical of the SNP. Throughout the pandemic they have failed to be transparent on critical issues.

“Concerns have been raised previously about how close the relationship is between Public Health Scotland and SNP Government ministers.

“It is clear they are now keen to avoid any sort of scrutiny on any potentially critical reports, by failing to do the basics and even recording what scoring is still being carried out.”

Used between June 22 and November 13, 2020, the vast majority of the ‘very high risk’ scores were given to PHS’s weekly Covid-19 statistics report.

Other reports such as a publication on the underlying causes of excess deaths in Scotland during the pandemic, a Covid-19 antibody survey of education staff, and a paper examining the hospitalisation risk from Covid-19 for healthcare workers also received a very high or severe risk score.

Despite being one of PHS’s main reports during this period, the report examining the link between hospital discharges and Covid-19 care home outbreaks was only given a reputational risk score of three, officials claimed.

The report had been commissioned by former health secretary Jeane Freeman for an “independent” examination of the Scottish Government’s policy around hospital discharges during the early stage of the pandemic.

Journalists were handed the report 15 minutes prior to a Scottish Government Covid-19 briefing on October 28, 2020, while ministers had access to the report five days earlier.

The report itself was later republished following criticism from the Office of Statistics Regulation stating the document had not been clear around its findings.

The new version said PHS “cannot rule out” a link between hospital discharges and Covid outbreaks in care homes.

Public Health Scotland claimed the hospital discharge report was subject to its reputational risk scoring exercise and scored a three, meaning it was not included in the Freedom of Information disclosure.

This means it was also viewed as less potentially harmful to the reputation of ministers by PHS than the weekly Covid-19 statistical report.

A spokesperson said: “As with all statistical releases in Scotland, pre-release access is provided to key stakeholders, including Scottish Government. This does not change the substance, content or independence of those producing the publications.

"Key stakeholders, including Scottish Government, were given pre-release access to the Discharges from NHS Scotland Hospitals to Care Homes report on Monday, October 26.

“PHS discharges its duties with integrity and is committed to work that is both open and transparent. A risk assessment for all publications is undertaken only to inform the supporting communications approach and for the awareness of sponsors.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Public Health Scotland have no duty to advise Scottish ministers on communication. Public Health Scotland functions entirely independently of ministers – as of course is right and proper – and any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely wrong.

“Clearly, it is important for the Scottish Government and PHS to share information effectively, particularly during a pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic PHS staff have been working tirelessly to provide data that has been vital for decision-making and no one should call their integrity into question.”

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