Healthcare concerns take centre stage at First Minister’s Questions

Exchanges over deaths at Glasgow hospital and Covid vaccine booster rollouts.

Healthcare concerns take centre stage at First Minister’s Questions SNS Group

I get a slightly uncomfortable feeling when the heartache of those who have suffered a tragic loss in the NHS is raised directly in parliament.

Not because it is not appropriate to do so, but because questions and answers in the hands of politicians threaten to relegate grief ahead of a defence of reputations.

And when exchanges threaten to become bad tempered, I always ask, what do those who are grieving make of this? At FMQs, both opposition and government just about stayed within the limits of acceptable disagreement.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has been a determined champion of parents unhappy with the explanations given of the deaths of loved ones at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth hospital.

It is his job to ask difficult questions and to use parliament to advocate on behalf of those who feel powerless and without a voice. After all, if the national legislature cannot give a voice to the voiceless, who can?

Today, he raised the death of a six-month-old baby, which he said was linked to a bacterial infection associated with the water supply at the hospital. He said the baby’s mother had no confidence in the health board. It was yet another voice adding to others who have expressed similar views.

The difficulty for any opposition leader is to know when to draw a line. Being measured in your pursuit of answers in specific cases can be misinterpreted as an attack on the reputation of an entire hospital.

Yesterday, clinicians at the hospital felt that claims made in parliament undermined public confidence in the entire range of services provided by the hospital. There is always a risk that when a narrative takes hold, its frequent repetition helps instil a reputation for scandal in the public consciousness.

Anas Sarwar has always trained his opprobrium on managers of the health board, not the frontline staff, but some of those staff feel the attrition over who should be accountable for hospital-acquired infections and deaths reflects on them, as well as those who run and plan the service.

There is no easy way to square an opposition’s duty to scrutinise with an injunction to hold back in case your concerns on specific issues leads to a more general feeling that a hospital cannot perform its tasks professionally.

The First Minister was bullish in her defence of the government’s handling of the issues surrounding the hospital, rejecting Sarwar’s view that she has chosen the side of the health board over the concerns of patients. 

Nicola Sturgeon told him that his ‘sack the board’ demand was not the right call, certainly not in the midst of a pandemic. If she thought issues would disappear by sacking the board, she would do precisely that.

This will not go away. At the heart of the issue is accountability. In the first instance, it is for clinicians to explain matters to patients and for the health board to ensure that every patient gets the answers they seek. It is for managers to explain and defend publicly their decision making.

In the case of the health board, it seems that accountability extends to issuing statements and seeking the cover of elected politicians who oversee but do not provide healthcare systems. The health board should be taking to the airwaves every day to reassure the public. That is the least they can do in the accountability stakes.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, raised the issue of the booster jag rollout, arguing there was a backlog of nearly two million jags. He slammed the government’s communications on booster jags, saying they were a mess. 

He took MSPs through a timeline of what the national clinical director and First Minster had said earlier in the week and contrasted that with people being turned away from vaccination centres.

The FM apologised but rejected the general charge, saying only a small number of people had been turned away after the rules on vaccination changed. She said that Scotland had the fastest vaccination rates in the UK and that was true of the first two doses as well as the booster.

Again, it is quite proper for Ross to raise these issues. He merely reflects the frustration of those who booked an appointment and turned up only to be turned away.  He also called for mass vaccination centres to ramp up the rate at which people are jagged.

The government benches groaned when Ross spoke, believing him to be making a crisis out of an issue for a small number of people. The longer the exchanges went on, the more impatient became his tone and that of the First Minister.

I did think, for those affected, they simply want to know that the system will work. The latter, angry exchanges jarred.

But then again, all accountability is inevitably rooted in the concerns, not only of people but of their advocates, the politicians.