The Scottish health watchdog has sought to delay the release of the report on deaths in Covid-19 care homes until after the Holyrood election


Public Health Scotland (PHS), which has been embroiled in controversy after it emerged that part of its mandate is to protect Scottish government ministers from criticism, was due to publish a report on death data from homes in care around Covid-19 on March 24.

This publication date of the Covid-19 care home mortality report was then changed to “to be confirmed” with a note stating “delay until elections are explored,” documents obtained by The Scotsman Show.

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The report was never published.

Deaths in nursing homes caused by Covid-19 have been at the center of the controversy since the start of the pandemic. Image: PA

PHS officials have categorically denied any suggestion that external pressure has been put on the agency to block publication from any organization, including the Scottish Government, and said pre-election civil service rules explained the exploration late.

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However, the Scottish Tories have said questions about potential pressure “from SNP ministers” and whether they are aimed at “suppressing criticism” before the Holyrood election should be answered.

Scottish Labor said the non-release of the report ahead of the election was “despicable” and raised questions about PHS ‘”murky” relationship with the SNP.

Documents obtained by this newspaper detail how the agency’s public relations and communications department has approached any report or article published since November 2020, including whether it had the potential to generate media interest or become politicized. .

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

The never-published report was to be a one-time publication of “an analysis to describe deaths from Covid-19 in healthcare facilities,” including mortality data from the start of the pandemic until mid-February 2021.

Nick Phin, clinical director and director of health protection at PHS, has been made responsible for exploring a possible publication delay.

It was originally scheduled for a March 24 release date before appearing on the “Forward Look” document each week, last on the document covering the following month’s posts from April 12.

PHS said the pre-election period, formerly known as “purdah,” when the release of data that was not announced in advance tends to be avoided by public bodies, was the primary driver of research. a late report.

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

He adds: “The need to provide relevant and timely statistics about him [Covid-19], it may be necessary to publish new statistics… during the pre-election period which have not been announced in advance. “

The guide adds that the head of the statistics profession at PHS would make the final decision on such a publication.

However, PHS said the release of a revised report on the impact of hospital discharges to care homes at the onset of the pandemic was considered by officials to cover the topic in sufficient depth, and the report on mortality data has never been released.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Sandesh Gulhane said “urgent responses” were needed to explain why the report was never released.

He said: “Grieving families will be dismayed by this latest revelation. This raises further questions about the kind of pressure SNP ministers were exerting to suppress criticism ahead of the election and whether public health officials gave in to their demands.

“Those who have lost loved ones as a result of serious mistakes made by SNP ministers at the height of the pandemic when it comes to nursing homes should know if they can still fully trust Public Health Scotland.

“Urgent answers must be given as to why this report never saw the light of day. This isn’t the first time this has suggested that a government SNP agency is too keen to protect those responsible from criticism, rather than giving families the honest answers they deserve.

Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labor deputy chief and health spokesperson, said the non-publication of the pre-election report was “despicable”.

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

“We were told that Covid data would be released during the election, but it looks like there was a cherry pick going on.

“It is despicable that the public was kept in the dark while they went to the polls – and it is even worse that it is still kept from them now.

“We cannot let the culture of secrecy at the heart of the SNP bleed into our public bodies.

“Public Health Scotland must be released from all rotation rights imposed on it by the SNP. “

The revelation follows controversy that erupted when then-Health Secretary Jeane Freeman turned to PHS in 2020 to commission an “independent” analysis to find out whether the referral of Covid-19 patients was not tested and positive in nursing homes had caused epidemics of the virus. in these establishments.

After its publication, PHS was forced to add additional details and change the wording of its conclusion, warning that it could not rule out a link between the releases and the Covid outbreaks.

The “Forward Look” documents detail how this worked in practice during the winter of 2020 and throughout 2021.

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

Despite actively evaluating the effectiveness of the minimum unit price of alcohol in Scotland, a key SNP policy, PHS also had a policy of referring every investigation of drug-related deaths to a pre-written declaration or to the Scottish government.

However, data on deaths in care homes was being closely monitored by the Scottish Government and other public bodies ahead of the May elections.

Prior to the election, the only data released had been released by the Crown Office to the BBC following an access to information request, but did not cover all recorded deaths.

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

Former economics and health cabinet secretaries Fiona Hyslop and Ms Freeman both spoke out around the publication of the death toll in personal care homes, leading the National Records of Scotland to release information at the end of May.

Both ministers wanted to see further consultation with care home operators and other external stakeholders to “minimize the impact” of the numbers.

A spokesperson for Public Health Scotland said: ‘Only one report was released as it was considered to address all of the issues under consideration.

“The report was not released in the immediate run-up to the election period, in accordance with long-standing practice.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: ‘Public Health Scotland has no obligation to advise Scottish ministers on communication. Public Health Scotland operates entirely at arm’s length from ministers – which is of course fair and appropriate – and any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false.

“Clearly it is important that the Scottish Government and PHS effectively share information, especially during a pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic, PHS staff have worked tirelessly to provide data that has been vital for decision making and no one should question its integrity. “

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