This time last year, Jeane Freeman MSP was picking up the top award at The Herald Politician of the Year ceremony at Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh. Newly appointed as Nicola Sturgeon’s Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman’s star was on the rise.
Twelve months on, however, and that star shines less brightly. The government is yet to meet its waiting times target, making a mockery of the so-called legal ‘guarantee’, and news emerged this week that its waiting times ‘rescue plan’ has fallen at the first hurdle. Meanwhile, many parts of the country face a GP recruitment crisis, the response to pressure on mental health services has been inadequate and the doors of a flagship children’s hospital are set to remain closed for another year due to a catalogue of failures.
Amid all this come revelations of contamination problems at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) campus in Glasgow that have cost the lives of two young children. While Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board undoubtedly bears the lion’s share of responsibility here, serious questions have been raised about the Health Secretary’s handling of the situation and transparency, both with those directly affected as well as the wider public. It’s fair to say, Jeane Freeman’s ministerial position feels precarious.
I first met Jeane in 2002 when we were both Special Advisers in the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration running the then Scottish Executive. Jeane was a key member of Jack McConnell’s team during his time as First Minister and it was not hard to see why he rated her so highly. As well as being extremely able, she had a reputation for ‘getting things done’, usually by brokering agreement rather than just bashing heads together.
These talents perhaps help explain why, after defecting to the SNP and being elected as an MSP in 2016, Jeane was fast tracked into Cabinet by Nicola Sturgeon. While she rightly earned plaudits, not least for brokering cross-party agreement around new welfare provisions, the health side of her portfolio has proved much more challenging.
Already forced into initiating a public inquiry into failings at QEUH and the new Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh, the Health Secretary has come under mounting pressure over the past fortnight in response to shocking reports from a ‘whistleblower’ at QEUH. Details surrounding the deaths in 2017 of Milly Main and Mason Djemat have given rise to understandable alarm, with the Health Secretary being quizzed last week in parliament about what she knew and when. In both cases, the families appear deeply unhappy about the way they have been treated in the aftermath of these tragic events and the lack of information that shared with them.
If Jeane Freeman hoped her ministerial statement last Wednesday would draw a line under the matter, she will have been disappointed. As well as subsequently having to place Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board in ‘special measures’, meaning more direct oversight and control from central government, the Cabinet Secretary now faces more questions after further revelations over the weekend about the extent of the problems at QEUH.
Apparently, a clinician-led investigation uncovered infection cases linked to water contamination at the hospital as far back as 2016, on top of the 26 incidents revealed in 2017, including the death of Milly Main, and 23 cases in 2018 reported by Health Protection Scotland. All relate to the paediatric cancer ward, where a 2018 Health and Safety Executive inquiry also identified shortcomings in staff training to deal with highly contagious diseases.
Most of this pre-dates Jeane Freeman’s appointment, of course, but it conveys the impression that she is not in control. That impression isn’t helped by the fact that she and her ministerial colleagues appear determined to use every parliamentary debate at present to demand independence. As health policy is wholly devolved to Holyrood, it is difficult for the Health Secretary to argue she lacks the powers she needs these problems or that someone else is to blame.
Right now, that award ceremony at the Prestonfield last November must seem a distant memory, though not as distant as it must seem for the winner of Politician of the Year 2013: one Mr A. Salmond.