Jeane Freeman has rejected as “absolute nonsense” claims the Scottish Government spent days “plotting how to spin” a report on hospital patients being discharged into care homes.
An investigation by Public Health Scotland into the practice – which it is feared may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of elderly residents – found dozens were moved on early in the pandemic despite having tested positive for coronavirus.
The report was made available on October 28, just 15 minutes before Nicola Sturgeon announced her take on its findings during a daily briefing.
It has since emerged ministers were actually handed the conclusions on October 23, three days earlier than previously suggested by Public Health Scotland.
The first minister stressed during the briefing that the report had found “no statistical evidence” to support the claim that hospital discharges of any kind were associated with deadly outbreaks in a number of care homes.
The UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation, which later criticised the presentation of the Public Health Scotland report, said the evidence actually suggests a “causal” link between the arrival of infected hospital patients and outbreaks in care homes.
‘Not statistically significant’
Emails released under freedom of information legislation detail how, five days earlier, Scottish Government officials focused in on the “not statistically significant” line and began preparing “lines to take… in anticipation of any questions at the briefing”.
An email between officials on October 23 shows an unnamed individual stating they had “made a start on a handling plan”, adding: “Explaining the ‘not statistically significant’ in English is challenging me too much at this time of the evening.”
Further correspondence sets out a timetable with the 15 minutes between publication and the first minister’s briefing. The section detailing suggested responses to journalists’ questions was redacted from the response.
The Scottish Conservatives said the correspondence shows SNP ministers “spent almost a week plotting how to spin a damning report” and were “cherry picking” lines to play down any link between discharges and care home deaths.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Donald Cameron told the Sun: “SNP spin is contaminating Scottish public life but even by their cynical standards, this is shocking.
“Is there no subject too important or sensitive that the SNP spin machine is not willing to bend and manipulate? It seems not, from these revelations.
“Grieving families who lost loved ones in care homes were desperate to see this report but it kept on being delayed.
“Now we find out that the SNP were hard at work spinning a response to downplay the report’s findings on transferring Covid-positive patients into care homes.
“That sums up the SNP’s attitude towards the scandal in our care homes. They’re putting spin before honesty, transparency and common decency.”
Asked about the claims during the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Friday, Jeane Freeman dismissed them as “absolute nonsense”.
Ms Freeman said: “We did not spend any time trying to spin anything. Remember, this is an independent report, independent of government and with academics from both Glasgow and Edinburgh University.
“The report says what the report says and we have been very clear in our response to that report and very clear in what we believe should be done and how we should act going forward and the steps that we have taken over many months to try and ensure we have what is now, in effect, seven layers of protection around care homes and the residents of care homes.
“Now, if people want to make political capital or attempt to make political capital out of this, that is their prerogative but I think it is much more serious than that. I take the safety of our residents and staff in care homes much more seriously than that.”