Scotland’s health secretary has apologised to the families of two children who died at a ‘super hospital’ in Glasgow.
Jeane Freeman expressed her “deepest sympathies” to the parents of ten-year-old Milly Main and a three-year-old boy who died three weeks apart at the £842m Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in August 2017.
Addressing MSPs at Holyrood on Wednesday, Ms Freeman said: “I want to start by offering my deepest sympathies to the families affected.
“To lose a loved one in any circumstances is hard, but I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child in these circumstances – or the suffering and grief that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“I also want to apologise to them that they feel they have not had their questions answered.
“They are absolutely right to ask and pursue their questions, and they are entitled to have them answered and to receive the support they need.”
On Monday, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) said it was “truly sorry” for the distress caused to the children’s families.
NHSGGC issued the apology after the health secretary said she had a “great deal of concerns” and warned the Scottish Government could intervene in the scandal-hit hospital’s management.
Two wards at the Royal Hospital for Children (RHC) – on the same campus as QEUH – were closed in September last year following concerns from Health Protection Scotland over incidents of water contamination.
Milly’s parents were reportedly not told about the water contamination link, which emerged following investigations into infections in children in the cancer wards at the RHC two years ago.
Milly’s mother, Kimberly Darroch, said she was “100%” certain her daughter died due to infected water at the hospital.
The children’s deaths emerged after Labour MSP Anas Sarwar was contacted by a whistleblower that claimed an internal investigation uncovered 26 cases of the infection stenotrophomonas in child cancer patients at the RHC – in addition to the 23 found by an official investigation.
Ms Freeman revealed that she is yet to see the findings of the doctor-led investigation that was allegedly carried out in 2017 into possible infections at the hospital.
NHSGGC has refused to comment on the investigation raised by the whistleblower, but has issued an apology to families for its poor communication.
Ms Freeman told MSPs: “There is no room in our health service for anyone to criticise whistleblowers, publicly or otherwise – or to put them in fear for the safety of their jobs.
“We need to recognise that whistleblowing is not something people who have dedicated their lives to health care, do lightly. It takes courage and they should be thanked.”
Labour MSP Monica Lennon claimed there’d been a lack of empathy and compassion, and asked why families would place their trust in the health board and health secretary.
Ms Freeman replied: “Well, I think they should place their trust in me because I am compassionate, I do have empathy, and that’s precisely why I met those families and have undertaken the work that I have done.
“And I refute absolutely from Miss Lennon, or from anyone else, that I am careless or irresponsible on these matters. It could not be further from the truth.
“It may suit you [Ms Lennon] to make those points for other reasons but they are not true and I refute them absolutely.”
On Sunday, police confirmed they had investigated the death of the three-year-old boy and had passed a report to the procurator fiscal.
Speaking to STV News on Monday morning, Ms Freeman said there was “no indication” that the deaths of the two children were linked.
She said: “There is no indication that there is a connection between those two deaths.
“In terms of that young boy’s family, it is my understanding that his family were given full information about what happened in his case, the cause of his death and so on, and were fully informed and involved.
“But in the case of Milly Main, that was not what happened and it is not acceptable that her mum found out that at least one of the factors in her daughter’s death was an infection when she read the death certificate.
“She should have been informed of all that much earlier by the board and that is the matters that we need to get behind and we need to sort out.”
Following Ms Freeman’s criticism, in which she said special measures to take a direct role in the management of a chosen health board was “always an option”, NHSGGC issued an apology.
Following on from the heath secretary’s statement on Wednesday, a NHSGGC spokesperson added: “We completely understand that this has been a distressing time for families and our staff and we apologise for the anxiety caused.
“Our communication with families and parents has not been good enough and we deeply regret this.
“We continue to take steps to improve communications and to answer questions openly and truthfully.
“We are also working with professor Craig White to develop better ways of engaging with families.
“Within NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, we encourage staff to raise problems with their managers or with their trade union.
“We have a robust whistleblowing policy which enables staff to raise concerns and have them dealt with in full confidence. We will continue to support staff in this process.
“There are clearly lessons for this board to learn and we are committed to making the necessary improvements.”
Mr Sarwar, MSP for Glasgow, said: “This statement from the health secretary will have disappointed parents, the brave NHS staff who have been put in this unforgiveable position, and the public.
“Given the seriousness of what has happened and the frankly insulting public statements, this health board should have been put into special measures.
“The health board has lost the confidence of all concerned. Ms Freeman did, however, recognise the bullying, intimidation and attempts to silence by the health board, which must stop.
“I also welcome the commitment that jobs of the brave NHS whisteblowers will be safe and that they will not be victimised for speaking out.
“I hope that encourages more staff to come forward so that parents, patients and the public can find out the truth of what happened.”
Charmaine Lacock, whose daughter Paige is undergoing treatment at the QEUH for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, met with the health secretary last month.
Following Ms Freeman’s statement to the Scottish Parliament, Ms Lacock said: “I’m shocked. I’m so disappointed.
“We were sitting with high hopes that she would do the right thing.”
Karen Stirrat, whose son Caleb has undergone chemotherapy for a rare, aggressive brain tumour, told STV News that since the hospital’s issues with its water supply, Caleb has also been given anti-fungal medication as a preventative measure.
She said: “He’s still not off it. There’s no further answers, so are we supposed to just live in this bubble?
“It’s our kids’ lives that are at risk and other kids in that ward.
“You’re supposed to feel safe and that’s the least thing we feel in there is safe.”