No plan could have helped Scotland tackle Covid pandemic, inquiry hears

Scottish former health secretary Jeane Freeman has admitted the country could have been better prepared to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, but “no plan” could have helped the country cope.

Giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Ms Freeman said: “There were certainly areas where Scotland could have been better prepared, in terms of the underlying structure and the delivery of all of those the recommendations.

“But Scotland, like other countries throughout the world, was dealing with a virus which was unknown and new, so in that sense I don’t believe there is a plan that would have been possible that would have been able in and of itself to cope with Covid-19.”

Ms Freeman (pictured), Scotland’s health secretary from 2018 to 2021, said there was enough personal protective equipment (PPE) available for hospital staff but issues surrounding distribution were behind some shortages.

She said all issues raised regarding PPE were acted on in “real time”, and she was updated on supplies daily.

She added that with another colleague, she “invested to set up a domestic supply chain of PPE in those circumstances of high global competition… I know that we had enough PPE, but clearly we encountered issues around distribution, both to where it was needed but also within those locations to the individuals who needed specific PPE”.

Ms Freeman expressed her condolences to people affected by the pandemic and thanked health and social care staff.

The inquiry also heard that the board set up to work on Scotland’s preparations for a possible pandemic had to suspend meetings for more than six months before the Covid outbreak due to warnings over the effects of a no-deal Brexit.

Gillian Russell, a senior civil servant who was the director of safer communities in Scotland between 2015 and 2020, told the inquiry the Scottish Government Pandemic Flu Preparedness Board (PFPB) made “disappointing” progress on its plans before the pandemic.

The inquiry heard the board was commissioned in summer 2017 by then deputy first minister John Swinney, who is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Thursday, and the group was formed “to lead on Scotland’s interests at UK level and further develop preparedness in Scotland”.

The discussion came after Kate Blackwell KC raised the subject of the Scottish Government’s simulation of a flu pandemic in 2016, named Operation Silver Swan, and a series of recommendations made after the exercise to improve the nation’s readiness to deal with a pandemic.

She told the inquiry a number of meetings were held by health officials to review progress on the delivery of those recommendations as well as further calls for improvements after another UK-wide pandemic rehearsal called Operation Cygnus a year later.

Ms Blackwell pointed out many of the recommendations had still not been fully implemented by June 2019, and asked Ms Russell why minutes of a resilience team meeting held that month to review progress said work to deliver them had been “paused”.

Ms Russell replied: “In October 2018 we were presented with the Yellowhammer planning assumptions for a no-deal Brexit and they were significantly challenging.

“A decision was taken that priority should be given to working through how we would mitigate the significant risks that would immediately crystalise on a no-deal Brexit.

“That took up a huge amount of strategic capacity across many parts of Scottish Government, including the resilience co-ordination of a lot of that work.”

Turning to the formation of the PFPB to oversee the work, Ms Blackwell asked Ms Russell why it appeared the group initially met every two months then stopped meeting between November 2018 and June 2019.

Ms Russell again cited behind-the-scenes planning for leaving the EU.

Asked if there had also been a problem with resources, Ms Russell replied: “There’s a finite resource in Government of people with certain skills and expertise.”

She said employees with expertise on subjects such as drug supplies would have been involved in pandemic preparedness, but had to be tasked to consider the effect a no-deal Brexit would have on supplies.

“There was a lot of work across Government to try to mitigate and understand those risks,” she said.

Noting that some work on pandemic preparedness was later described in documents as being dealt with under the term “business as usual”, Ms Blackwell asked: “It was a disappointing response, wasn’t it, to the recommendations from both Silver Swan and Cygnus?”

Ms Russell replied: “It was disappointing but other factors came into play.”

It had been widely reported that Scotland’s former chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood would give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday, but she did not appear.

No explanation was provided for her absence but it is understood she will be called later to give her evidence.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Dr Calderwood recently suffered an accident that required emergency medical treatment.”

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