Nicola Sturgeon has defended health secretary Humza Yousaf against allegations of “scaremongering” over claims about the number of children being taken to hospital for Covid-19.
The first minister insisted no one in her government is “trying to alarm people” as Mr Yousaf came in for criticism after his suggestion that 10 young people were in hospital “because of Covid” was rubbished by physicians.
It appears the mix up may have been linked to children with no symptoms testing positive for the virus while being treated for other ailments, such as a broken bone.
“Management information” statistics show 10 children up to the age of nine had Covid-19 while in hospital between May 24 and 30 but notes make clear this includes those who may have been hospitalised for unrelated reasons before later testing positive.
Information is not routinely published on the ages of patients currently in hospital because of Covid-19 so there is no official public data to further explore.
Mr Yousaf said on Thursday that he “regrets” if his remarks caused undue alarm after medics confirmed children’s wards are not seeing any rise in admissions due to Covid and stressed there is no reason for parents to worry.
He told listeners to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that as a result of the number of children in hospital because of the virus “the risk of someone who travelled from a level two area into a level one area and who took their children into a soft play area could lead to the hospitalisation of children”.
On Friday, Scotland’s new dedicated Covid recovery secretary, John Swinney, appeared on the same programme and claimed that the number of children being admitted to hospital with the virus was “on the high side”.
He added: “We have to look at all of these factors to determine is there something in the new variants that are emerging that is making it more acutely challenging for children with a greater health impact”.
However Dr Steve Turner, registrar for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital, said there is no evidence increasing numbers of youngsters are being hospitalised with Covid-19.
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Addressing the issue at a Scottish Government coronavirus briefing on Friday, on the day the number of new cases reached their highest daily total since February, at 992, Ms Sturgeon said Mr Yousaf had simply misspoken.
She said: “What the health secretary was trying to say is nothing is without risk, and that applies to children as it does to adults. Nobody in the Government is trying to alarm people.
“We spend almost every day trying to do the opposite, to give people the best assessment of risk that we possibly can without alarming people.”
Not seeking to alarm anyone
Ms Sturgeon was also challenged on why it had taken the Scottish Government more than 30 hours after first being asked by journalists to admit that the figures were not as the health secretary had claimed.
The SNP leader insisted Mr Yousaf was “absolutely not seeking to alarm anybody” and that the context of his answer was about whether a parent in a level two area should take their child to a soft play centre in a level one area.
“It was in the context of that question that he was making the point, with reference to the small number of children in hospital, that it isn’t the case that there’s no risk to children in the course of this, and he used a word that was not the correct word to use there,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Nobody meant to do that. We’re trying to give people the best assessment of the risks as we possibly can, to allow people as far as possible, within all the rules that are set, to make the best judgments.”
The Scottish Conservatives accused Mr Yousaf of “irresponsibly frightening parents and failing in his duty to prevent panic” and confirmed he would be asked to provide a full explanation to Parliament next week.
Party leader Douglas Ross said: “Today’s Covid briefing should have taken place in the Scottish Parliament. By going on the BBC instead, Nicola Sturgeon dodged scrutiny from opposition parties on Humza Yousaf’s scaremongering.
“Parents deserve upfront honesty from the SNP Government, not days of spin over child hospitalisations.
“Instead of admitting Humza Yousaf’s comments were misleading and alarmist, the deputy first minister and now the first minister have made up excuses to defend him.
“As justice secretary, Humza Yousaf irresponsibly pre-judged a police inquiry and failed in his duty to calm tensions, not heighten them.
“Now as health secretary, after just a few weeks in the job, he has already been sidelined for irresponsibly frightening parents and failing in his duty to prevent panic, not create it.
“The lack of a straightforward apology and correction is unacceptable. We will be seeking to call him before the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday for a full explanation.”