Jeane Freeman yesterday said she would apologise to NHS Highland staff who were intimated and bullied as MSPs expressed alarm over the health board’s “toxic” working culture.
The health secretary said she would take the step when she was challenged on why the Scottish Government had not acted earlier to tackle the bullying and harassment identified in John Sturrock QC’s report.
The report said it was possible that hundreds of members of staff had experienced inappropriate behaviour. The investigation also said senior Scottish Government officials were “aware of the dysfunctional situation” with the board and at senior leadership level for a “considerable period of time” before the allegations became public in autumn 2017.
In a Holyrood statement, Ms Freeman announced a task-force made up of NHS board leaders, trade unions and Royal Colleges to prevent bullying across all Scottish health boards.
A NHS wellbeing summit will be held in the summer to tackle bullying and non-executive whistle-blowing champions, with the power to go directly to Ms Freeman with concerns, will be recruited to each health board.
Ms Freeman said the review had identified “a number of significant cultural issues” that did not reflect NHS values.
“That can neither be acceptable nor allowed to continue,” she added.
But Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Edward Mountain accused the government of “dithering” when it came to dealing with the situation.
Mr Mountain said: “According to the report it appears that the Scottish Government knew about the dysfunctional nature of NHS Highland in Autumn 2017 and yet did nothing about, waiting to see what others would do.
“In my 40 years of professional experience, I have never read such a damning report. And in her statement I did not once hear the word ‘sorry’.”
Mr Mountain then asked Ms Freeman to apologise. The Health Secretary said: “I have already apologised to NHS staff in the Highlands and will do so again. I am more than happy to do that.”
Ms Freeman said she did not accept that the Scottish Government had “dithered”. She said government officials had been working with the board since 2017 to improve governance.
The Health Secretary said the government faced a “dilemma” on when it should step in.
“With hindsight there may be a case that we should have done it earlier or that we shouldn’t have done it when we did. The fact is we are where we are,” Ms Freeman said.
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart MSP said: “I have never before encountered such a toxic culture of bullying than that which has been experienced by the staff.”