Covid Scotland: Row over Public Health Scotland 'shielding ministers' sign of 'control freakery' from SNP

A key government agency leading on the publication of Covid-19 statistics has become embroiled in row after it emerged one of its duties is to reportedly protect the reputation of Scottish Government ministers.

Nicola Sturgeon during a Covid briefing at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Picture: PA

The Times reported details of a “communications framework” held by Public Health Scotland wherein the agency had to score their publications to decide whether the research criticised the Scottish Government’s policies.

PHS led the investigation into potential links between patients being discharged into care homes without Covid-19 tests and deaths from the disease.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Nicola Sturgeon claimed the report showed “no statistical evidence” that discharges from hospital cause outbreaks of Covid-19 in care homes, but following an intervention by the Office for Statistics Regulation, a new report was drafted stating the link could not be ruled out.

Reacting, Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson and deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the “communications framework” was an example of the “control freakery” at the top of the SNP.

She said: “Scots believed PHS was an independent voice subjecting life or death decisions during the pandemic to serious scrutiny. But these reports raise serious questions about a conflict of interest that need to be resolved.

“It is just another example of the micromanagement and control freakery which defines the SNP.

“Public agencies don’t exist to protect the reputation of ministers and a competent government has nothing to fear from honest accountability.

“On vital matters of public health, Scotland deserve answers, not nationalist spin.”

The document, uncovered through freedom of information regulation, states that PHS must manage “risk” when communicating the detail of research with the press and the public.

It states: “Risk management in relation to communications will primarily relate to reducing the potential impact of the risk on the reputation and credibility of the organisations, which may also impact the wider NHS and local authorities.”

A “very high/severe” risk would, The Times reported, cause “sustained or widespread criticism of the Scottish government” and “ministers being pressed to make a statement to parliament”.

Potential headline news or that which created public criticism for at least a week was also considered high risk.

Commenting, the Scottish Conservative health spokesperson Annie Wells called for a fresh report into the links between hospital discharges and care home outbreaks of Covid-19.

She said: “There is a blatant conflict of interest in Public Health Scotland judging SNP ministers, who the agency has a duty to protect from criticism.

“This news calls into question if the findings of that report were compromised. The revelation that PHS must protect SNP ministers may well explain why key information was omitted.”

Responding, a spokesperson for PHS said: “The Office for Statistics Regulation regulates the production of official statistics, and this includes the work of PHS.

"This included the production of the Hospital Discharges to Care Homes Report, which was produced independently by PHS in partnership with the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“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 to inform supporting communications and for the awareness of our sponsors, the Scottish Government and COSLA.

"It does not change the substance, content or independence of those producing publications.”

Responding, health secretary Humza Yousaf said: “These claims are not true.

"Public Health Scotland functions entirely independently of Ministers – as of course is right and proper – and any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely wrong.

“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.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.