Scotland’s health watchdog tried to delay publication of Covid-19 nursing home death report until after Holyrood election

Public Health Scotland (PHS), which was embroiled in controversy after it emerged that part of its mandate is to protect Scottish Government ministers from criticism, was to publish a report on nursing home mortality data around Covid-19 on 24. March.

This release date for the nursing home’s Covid-19 mortality report was later changed to “TBC” along with a note stating “delay until after the election is being explored”, documents obtained by The Scotsman show.

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The report was never published.

Nursing home deaths caused by Covid-19 have been at the center of controversy since the beginning of the pandemic. Image: PA

PHS officials vehemently rejected any suggestion that there was external pressure on the agency to block publication from any organization, including the Scottish Government, saying the pre-election rules explained the investigation into the delay.

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The Scottish Conservatives, however, said questions needed to be answered about potential pressure “exerted by SNP ministers” and whether it was intended to “suppress criticism” ahead of the Holyrood election.

Scottish Labor said the failure to publish the report before the election was “despicable” and raised questions about PHS’s “obscure” relationship with the SNP.

Documents obtained from this newspaper describe how the Agency’s PR and Communications Department has approached any report or paper published since November 2020, including whether it had the potential to generate media interest or be politicized.

In the notes to the organization’s “Forward Look” documents, PHS officials said of the release of the nursing home mortality data report that “there was probably significant media interest in the topic.”

The never-published report was to be a one-time release of “an analysis to describe Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes,” including mortality data from the beginning of the pandemic to mid-February 2021.

Nick Phin, PHS’s clinical director and director of health protection, has been named as the official leading the investigation into a potential delay in publication.

It was originally set for a release date on March 24, before appearing on the ‘Forward Look’ document each week, at the end of the document covering publications for the next month from April 12.

PHS said the pre-election period, formerly known as ‘purdah’, where disclosure of data that was not pre-announced tends to be avoided by government agencies, was the main driving force behind seeking a delay in the report.

However, in its weekly Covid-19 statistical reports published in April this year, PHS states that despite this period, “statistics on Covid-19 will continue to be published”.

It adds: “The need to provide relevant and timely statistics on it [Covid-19], there may be a need to publish new statistics… during the pre-launch period, which have not been announced in advance. ”

The guide adds that the head of statistics at PHS will make the final decision on any such publication.

However, PHS said that the publication of a revised report on the impact of discharges from hospitals to nursing homes in the early stages of the pandemic was considered by officials as covering the subject sufficiently in depth, and the mortality data report was never published.

The Conservative health spokesman, Sandesh Gulhane, said there was a need for quick answers as to why the report was never published.

He said: “Grieving families will be shocked by this latest revelation. It raises further questions about what kind of pressure was exerted by SNP ministers to suppress pre-election criticism and whether public health officials bowed to their demands.

“Those who lost loved ones as a result of serious mistakes made by SNP ministers at the height of the nursing home pandemic need to know if they can still have full confidence in Public Health Scotland.

“Quick answers need to be given as to why this report has never seen the light of day. “Not for the first time, it suggests that an SNP government body is too eager to protect those responsible from criticism instead of giving families the honest answers they deserve.”

Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labor’s deputy chief and health spokesman, said the failure to publish the report before the election was “despicable”.

She said: “These astonishing revelations raise even more questions about Public Health Scotland’s sinister relationship with the SNP.

“We were told that Covid data would be published through the election, but it seems that there has been a lot of cherry picking going on.

‘It’s disgusting that the public was kept in the dark while going to the polls – and it’s even worse that it’s still being hidden from them now.

“We can not let the culture of silence in the heart of the SNP soak into our public bodies.

“Public Health Scotland must be released from any spin tax imposed by the SNP.”

The revelation follows the controversy that erupted when then-Health Secretary Jeane Freeman approached PHS in 2020 to order an “independent” analysis of whether the discharge of untested and positive Covid-19 patients to nursing homes had caused outbreaks. of the virus in these institutions.

Following the publication, PHS was forced to add further details and change the wording of its conclusion, warning that it could not rule out a link between the emissions and the Covid outbreak.

The ‘Forward Look’ documents describe how this worked in practice during the winter of 2020 and throughout 2021.

They show that the agency also worked closely with the government on how to handle a report on the effectiveness of screening during the pandemic, on the spread of Covid-19 among students and on the number of cancer patients in Scotland’s NHS.

Despite actively evaluating the effectiveness of minimum unit prices for alcohol in Scotland, a central SNP policy, PHS also had a policy of referring any inquiry into drug deaths to a prescribed statement or the Scottish Government.

However, data on deaths in nursing homes were closely guarded by the Scottish Government and other public bodies ahead of the May election.

Prior to the election, the only published data had been released by the Crown Office to the BBC following a request for freedom of information, but did not cover all registered deaths.

National Records of Scotland and Care Inspectorate released their mortality data on May 26 after a transparency battle with The Scots and other media.

Former Secretary of the Treasury and Health Secretary Fiona Hyslop and Mrs Freeman both intervened on the publication of the number of deaths in individual care homes, which led to the National Records of Scotland publishing the information in late May.

Both ministers were keen to see further consultations with nursing home operators and other external stakeholders to “minimize the impact” of the figures.

A Public Health Scotland spokesman said: “Only one report had been published as it was considered to cover all the issues under consideration.

“The report was not published in the immediate period up to the election period in accordance with many years of practice.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Public Health Scotland has no duty to advise Scottish ministers on communications. Public Health Scotland operates completely independently of ministers – which is of course right and proper – and any suggestion to the contrary is completely wrong.

“It is clear that it is important for the Scottish Government and the PHS to share information effectively, especially during a pandemic.

“Through the pandemic, PHS staff have worked tirelessly to deliver data that has been crucial to decision making, and no one should question their integrity.”

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