Nicola Sturgeon accused of ‘hiding’ behind NHS in furious row on pandemic preparation

Nicola Sturgeon angrily denied she’d been “hiding” behind NHS staff in a political bust-up on planning for the deadly covid pandemic.

The First Minister faced a backlash from Holyrood’s opposition parties on the findings of a report by Scotland’s public spending watchdog on preparations.

Published this morning, the report by Audit Scotland said a series of gaps in planning exercises were not all addressed.

The missed opportunities were highlighted while the NHS faces a massive backlog for treatment and a huge bill.

Measures to ensure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) were also not fully implemented.

Sturgeon insisted the SNP Government has steered the country through the crisis as best as it could, and praised the efforts of the health service.

But MSPs pushed the focus to the years before the global outbreak when three planning exercises were held on a potential pandemic, modelled on flu.

The army helped the NHS set up test centres and an emergency hospital.

Labour’s stand-in leader, Jackie Baillie, said: “I make no criticism of the staff who I think have been absolutely hard-working and brilliant throughout this but the First Minister needs to stop hiding behind them because this is a matter of leadership. That is something she is responsible for.”

She said Sturgeon should have “paid attention” to early warning signs, and slammed the impact of the pandemic on care home decisions at the start of the pandemic.

Sturgeon hit back: “I have on not one single day since this pandemic struck hidden or tried to hide in any way. In fact, on the days when I’ve been seeking to the best of my abilities to lead this country through the pandemic, Jackie Baillie has been writing letters to the BBC trying to stop me briefing the public.

“Perhaps it is the fact this government has shown leadership that Jackie Baillie finds quite so difficult to take.”

Sturgeon said she learned from flu pandemics but planning exercises had not considered the type of virus spreading covid-19.

Ruth Davidson, the Tory Holyrood group leader, opened the questioning at Holyrood with criticism on the SNP’s handling of the crisis.

She said: “Mistakes built up over a decade of delay that eventually cost the health of frontline workers and cost the lives of care home residents. The SNP Government was warned again and again and again.”

In their report, auditors praised the government’s quick response once the outbreak was in full swing, but said officials “could have been better prepared to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The Record has previously exposed how three simulations were carried out across the UK.

Operation Isis reported “unease” over PPE, operation Silver Swan flagged up gaps in social care, and Exercise Sygnus warned about problems with British preparedness for a major outbreak.

Audit Scotland now recommends the government publishes national pandemic guidance for the health and social care sector as a priority, including lessons that have been learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and the previous planning exercises.

Auditor General Stephen Boyle said: “NHS staff have shown extraordinary commitment to treating and caring for Scotland’s people during a pandemic that has highlighted the need to deal with long-standing health inequalities.

“Getting the full range of health services back up and running will be challenging.

“But there are clear lessons to be learned from the pandemic, both in how the country could have been better prepared and in the innovation that we’ve seen. It’s essential that these advances are now retained and built upon.”

Gary Smith, of the GMB union, said: “We were told at the start of this pandemic that Scotland was prepared. This latest report reinforces the fact that we were not.

“There was no proper plan for PPE or testing, not in the NHS, social care or anywhere in our key worker response, and that was evidenced time and again. Covid-19 ruthlessly exposed many of the underlying problems in our public services after years of cuts, problems government tried to manage rather than tackle. Our key workers have paid a huge price for that failure.”

Responding to the report today, SNP health secretary Jeane Freeman said: “As Audit Scotland acknowledge, the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by a new disease with unknown characteristics, and like governments around the world, we have had to respond rapidly to the emergence of an entirely new public health threat.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we put in place longstanding plans to double and then quadruple capacity of our intensive care units. We reconfigured the SEC in Glasgow into a quality critical setting, the NHS Louisa Jordan within three weeks.

“Emergency, urgent and trauma services have continued through the pandemic with as much other non-COVID care as possible and our frontline health and care staff have worked day-in and day-out to care for people across Scotland throughout this unprecedented crisis.

“At no point has our NHS been overwhelmed, which is testament to swift action and extraordinary efforts of everyone involved. At all times the Scottish Government’s actions have been guided by the best and most up to date scientific and medical advice.”


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