Public Health Scotland has been accused of a “blatant conflict of interest” following reports that it had to score research to determine whether papers challenged or criticised Scottish Government policies.
It comes after the Times newspaper said that it had obtained a document showing that the body had agreed a “communications framework” with the Scottish Government and COSLA, the national association of Scottish councils.
The document instructs PHS to manage “risk” when communicating with the media and the public, the newspaper reported.
It involves a ranking system, with communications which could cause “sustained or widespread criticism of the Scottish Government” allocated as being of very high/severe risk.
Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf has said that the claims are “not true”, and that PHS “functions entirely independently of ministers”.
PHS has also stated that it “discharges its duties with integrity” and is “committed to work that is both open and transparent”.
The Scottish Conservatives have called for a new independent report on Covid deaths in care homes to be published after suggesting that the document produced by PHS “may have been compromised”.
The party’s shadow health secretary Annie Wells 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.
“The Public Health Scotland report on Covid deaths in care homes was controversial from the start. It was delayed and when it was finally released, the SNP set about spinning lines and downplaying its findings.
“Grieving families were furious at the lack of answers it gave.”
Wells continued: “This news calls into question if the findings of that report were compromised. The revelation that Public Health Scotland must protect SNP ministers may well explain why key information was omitted.
“We now need a new, truly independent report on what went wrong in Scotland’s care homes, where more than 3000 people tragically lost their lives. Families deserve comprehensive analysis they can trust.”
Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said that public agencies do not exist to protect the reputation of ministers.
“Scots believed PHS was an independent voice subjecting life or death decisions during the pandemic to serious scrutiny,” said Baillie.
“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.”
Responding to a request for comment by STV News, PHS said that as a provider of official statistics, it takes its responsibilities under the UK Statistics Code of Practice seriously.
The body outlined that the Office for Statistics Regulation regulates the production of official statistics, and that this includes the work of PHS.
PHS said that this included the production of the Hospital Discharges to Care Homes Report, which was produced independently by PHS working in partnership with the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
It also stated that it has a head of profession for statistics to ensure the organisation meets its obligations under the code for objectivity, integrity and transparency.
In a statement, the body added: “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 only to inform the supporting communications approach, and for the awareness of sponsors. It does not change the substance, content or independence of those publications.”
Health secretary Humza Yousaf said that no one should call the integrity of PHE into question.
He 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.”