UK overseas networks told not to help Scotland with PPE, says Jeane Freeman

UK government “overseas networks“ have been told not to support Scotland and other devolved administrations in securing new PPE, health secretary Jeane Freeman has revealed.

She warned that the advice could create a “problem” for the Scottish Government in its efforts to secure protective equipment supplies abroad during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The issue has now been raised with UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock who is looking into it.

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Ms Freeman raised the matter as she gave evidence before MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee yesterday where she said that 160 million PPE items have been delivered across Scotland since March.

Clinical staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as they care for a patient at an intensive care unit. Picture : Neil Hall/PA Wire

Securing PPE from abroad has been a challenge since the UK government missed out on the first EU procurement round, although it has since joined this.

Ms Freeman added: “We have raised a very specific issue with he Secretary of State Matt Hancock and that is around a decision that was taken with respect to the Department of International Trade overseas network and Foreign and Commonwealth Office,”

“Advice was issued not to support new procurement asks from devolved administrations.

“Myself, my colleagues in Wales and in Northern Ireland all raised concerns with Mr Hancock about that.”

Ms Freeman said that PPE procurement is a “devolved matter”.

“Where we co-operate at a voluntary level that is a voluntary co-operation and so as part of the UK, those Department of Trade overseas networks should be supporting devolved administrations,” the cabinet secretary went on.

“We’ve yet to have a final response to that. He [Hancock] did undertake to go away and look at it. But certainly where we are looking to source new overseas supply chains or have existing supply chains where there might be glitches, to have those glitches resolved, we do look to the Department of Trade overseas network to assist us.

“And so having that assistance withdrawn will cause us some problems and we need to have that matter resolved.”

The health secretary says Scotland does have a network of supply chains and distribution networks which has “expanded considerably” during the pandemic.

“When we choose voluntarily to come together at a UK level that is in addition to those individual nation approaches and supply chains and networks and so on.”

Ms Freeman also said that a pandemic planning exercise held five years ago was insufficient to prepare for the “infectiousness” of Covid-19.

Exercise Silver Swan took place in 2015, where Scottish public services dealt with a simulated flu outbreak.

The UK government ran a similar exercise called Cygnus, though the results of neither operation have been published in full.

The health secretary said: “It was of value to us when we began to deal with this particular coronavirus pandemic.

“But in some respects was not sufficient, particularly around the emerging clinical and scientific understanding of how coronavirus spreads, and its level of infectiousness, if you like.

“And so we had to scale up our stockpiling and our ordering of particular items of PPE. But it was of value in giving us that opportunity to create and hold a stockpile of PPE items that effectively was untouched and in the event of a pandemic there to be used if we needed it.

“As it turned out, we did.”

She said she could share the recommendations of the report with the Health Committee.

However she added that scientific understanding of Covid-19 is continuing to grow, including its long-term health effects on people who have recovered from the virus.

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