Kevan Christie: Ex-nurse Freeman makes good start as Health Secretary

Scotland's new Health Secretary appears to have got off to a flyer in terms of addressing the range of issues that weighed down her predecessor, Shona Robison, leading to her inevitable resignation and creating a siege mentalilty in the higher echelons of Holyrood.

Jeane Freeman worked as a nurse so has more experience of the NHS than most in the Scottish Government (Picture: John Devlin)
Jeane Freeman worked as a nurse so has more experience of the NHS than most in the Scottish Government (Picture: John Devlin)

Jeane Freeman certainly brings a wealth of much-needed life experience and a degree of pragmatism to this most difficult of roles.

The former nurse has made all the right noises in terms of pledging to increase the speed at which the opaque health and social care services need to be brought together to address the country’s delayed-discharge problem – also known as bed-blocking – a nightmare that keeps people waiting in hospital when they’re fit enough to leave.

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Here’s hoping she bangs a few bureaucratic heads together and manages to navigate through the coalition of local health boards and councils tasked with providing social care – a flagship idea from her own government built on an integration pipe dream. Good luck with that one Jeane.

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However, what may prove even more difficult for the nascent Cabinet Secretary is her vow to cut waiting times – a weekly Groundhog Day for Robison that proved to be her Achilles’ heel.

A&E waiting-time targets have been missed for a ninth month in a row and bed-blocking has risen eight per cent in a year. And those problems make up the tip of an iceberg that also includes almost 500 cancelled operations in May alone due to a lack of hospital capacity, an ongoing GP recruitment crisis and cancer treatment waiting times at their worst level in six years.

Hopefully, Freeman doesn’t fall into the trap set by the Scottish Government’s own Information Services Division, which brings out a fresh raft of statistics every Tuesday to the delight of opposition parties who are provided with their weekly open goal. The early signs are that the new Health Secretary has no difficulty acknowledging there are problems in providing free healthcare to an ageing population and this is to be welcomed.

A situation developed over the course of Robison’s tenure in which the media would (over) report on the latest missed waiting time target, the likes of Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar would call for her head, and the under-fire Health Secretary would ignore the problem. Instead she would tell us, again, how much her Government had spent on improving the nation’s health.

Notable figures like the chair of the BMA in Scotland, Dr Peter Bennie, and a former chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, have consistently argued that waiting-time figures should be scrapped and are counter-productive to providing the best healthcare. This was blatantly ignored by Robsion and her Cabinet colleagues who developed the frankly annoying habit of constantly comparing statistics in Scotland to the rest of the UK, most notably England, in a politicisation of the health service that isn’t helpful to someone waiting 37 weeks for a knee replacement.

I may be over-optimistic but if Freeman can bring her own stamp of authority to the job and tackle critics head-on, while admitting problems exist, then we may be moving forward. The first publication of the monthly financial performance of all NHS health boards is an encouraging move towards greater transparency and Scotland’s GPs are on record as saying Freeman can help rebuild general practice. So, the goodwill appears to be there and the current mood music is favourable – let’s hope it lasts.