Why we should all be worried about Scottish Government agency withholding information – The Scotsman

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has always been adamant she has no desire to politicise the coronavirus pandemic.

Sure, the SNP may, during the recent election campaign, have circulated leaflets bearing the image of the lectern from which Sturgeon delivers her regular covid updates and, yes, the FM may have spent the last couple of weeks before polling day insisting only support for her party would guarantee strong experienced leadership during the recovery period but you must see, surely, that none of this was political.

Let us all simply agree that, when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus crisis, Sturgeon and her Government are doing a tip-top, rinky-dink job.

There’s always someone, though, isn’t there? Someone who insists on picking at the officially sanctioned version of events. Last week, a group of troublemakers – from Scotland on Sunday’s sister paper, The Scotsman, and a number of other media outlets – successfully challenged an attempt by a government agency to withhold information about the deaths in care homes.

National Records of Scotland unlawfully blocked requests – under freedom of information legislation – to release details of how many people had died in each of the country’s care homes.

The publicly-funded body offered a range of pitiful excuses for its refusal to do its legal duty. It offered up some nonsense about “data protection sensitivities”, claimed the release of the information might harm the commercial interests of care home owners (doesn’t the heart just bleed?), and even suggested there was a risk to the health and safety of care home staff.

The information commissioner didn’t buy any of that rubbish and, finally, we know the truth about how many people died in each care facility in the country.

It is difficult to disagree with the reactions of opposition MSPs at Hiolyrood to this scandalous attempt to keep the public in the dark. The Tories are correct when they say there had been a blatant attempt to sweep the true scale of of the care hoime deaths scandal under the carpet and Labour are equally on the money with their description of the refusal to publish the information as “utterly shameful”.

For all the SNP spin about the First Minister’s masterful leadership during the pandemic, the fact remains that it was on her watch that the NHS discharged covid-infected patients into care homes where the virus quickly spread, causing more than 3,000 deaths among residents.

So, the information commissioner was absolutely right when he stated there was a strong public interest in the release of the information NRS wished to conceal.

When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005, we were promised a new era of openness. Public bodies, previously able to cover up their dealings behind a veil of secrecy, would have to provide information about the way they were run. For the first time, we would learn the truth about decision making.

While the legislation’s primary objective was to make information available to the public, a secondary effect – or hope – was that it would make public bodies more honest. If they faced being held publicly accountable for their every act, then perhaps they would take greater care to do things by the book.

But all of this only works if public bodies – including the Government – play by the rules of the act.

In recent years, there has been a troubling tendency for the Scottish Government to drag its heels over answering freedom of information requests. We have seen a culture emerge where ministers’ special advisers have been allowed to oversee requests, putting the protection of MSPs who might be embarrassed by the truth over the public’s right to know.

The NRS’s attempt to conceal details about deaths in care homes is part of a wider culture – which starts at the very top of government – of evasion when it comes to freedom of information.

Had the NRS done as the law required and released the information in question when it was requested, then it is entirely likely that Sturgeon and her ministers would have faced difficult questions about what the hell was going on. Perhaps that carefully crafted tale of Government competence would have seemed a little shakier.

Asked about this scandal on Friday, Sturgeon said there had been “no masking of the scale” of deaths in care homes. Nobody suggests this has happened but it was a useful straw man for a First Minister under pressure.

The NRS, she added, operated independently of ministers, she added.

But Scotland is a small country and the reaction by NRS to an awkward question about care home deaths is entirely in keeping with the current public sector culture.

Supporters of the First Minister might feel that, well, in the scheme of things, a tendency to evade troublesome freedom of information requests is understandable. After all, it’s usually just a bunch of troublemakers fishing for something with which to beat Sturgeon, isn’t it?

It is certainly true that FOI is a useful tool for opposition parties. Before it came to power in 2007, the SNP regularly used freedom of information requests to generate damaging stories about Scotland’s Labour-Liberal Democrat administration.

But partisanship shouldn’t factor in our condemnation of a growing culture of secrecy which sees the freedom of information act defied by public bodies. When National Records of Scotland decided to withhold vital information about care home deaths, they prevented families from making fully informed choices about the safety of their elderly relatives.

Freedom of Information requests may bring forth information that embarrasses politicians and civil servants. Good. If that happens, the law is working.

Those who break the law by failing to answer difficult questions may be motivated by the desire to protect themselves and their political superiors but, as this case shows, they may also be making Scotland a less safe place for the rest of us.

Covid: Half of appointments missed at Glasgow mass vaccine hub – BBC News

Around half of people who were due to get a Covid jab at a mass vaccination centre in Glasgow failed to turn up over the weekend.

The BBC has learned a “considerable” number of no shows were recorded on both Saturday and Sunday at the Hydro.

The venue can administer a minimum of 4,000 vaccinations each day, with a capacity to scale up to 10,000.

It comes amid efforts to accelerate vaccination following a rise in cases in the city.

The BBC understands that the number of missed appointments at the Hydro was higher on Sunday than on Saturday.

Both NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the Scottish government said they were looking into the issue to establish if it was a localised issue or more widespread.

The Scottish Conservatives suggested there may have been an issue with people receiving their vaccination appointment letter on time while the Lib Dems pointed to younger age groups who they said “move frequently” and have less contact with their GP.

In Scotland, people are sent their appointments directly by letter, rather than booking slots themselves.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, who received his first jab on Monday, said there had been a “slight increase” in those not attending appointments.

He said: “My plea would be to please attend and if you can’t attend the appointment you’re given of course you do have details where you can switch appointments, rearrange and reschedule – which is really important to do.”

Glasgow City currently has the second highest coronaviruS rate in Scotland at 136.8 cases per 100,000 people, having recorded 866 new positive tests in the seven days to 21 May.

Clackmannanshire has overtaken it for the highest case rate, at 139.7 per 100,000 although the number of positive tests is much smaller, at 72.

Glasgow is the only council area in Scotland under level three Covid restrictions amid concerns over the prevalence of the variant first identified in India – referred to as the April 02 variant by the Scottish government.

People aged 18 to 39 who live in postcodes G41, G42, G5, G51 or G52 in the southside of Glasgow are being offered jabs early to tackle surging cases.

The national clinical director, Prof Jason Leitch, confirmed there were bigger numbers of non-attendees than expected and that it was being looked into.

He told Radio Scotland’s Drivetime with John Beattie: “It’s not simple, it will be a mixture of reasons. Some of it will be our fault, because we didn’t send letters in time or the appointments didn’t go where they were supposed to go.

“Some of it will be vaccine hesitancy and some will be complacency. But it doesn’t matter if you didn’t attend, we just want you to come. Make a new appointment and come back.”

He also said he was optimistic that case numbers in Glasgow would stabilise and that the city might be able to move down to level two next week.


18-29 year-olds encouraged to self-register

The Scottish government is now inviting 18-29 years to self-register after a successful trial for unpaid carers.

A spokeswoman said: “This age group is particularly mobile and having the ability to text these groups means they will receive details of their vaccination appointment regardless of where they are.

“This is particularly relevant for students who may have registered with a GP near their term time address but be heading home for the holidays. Therefore, once they receive their appointment details vie text or email they simply contact the helpline should they need to change the location.”

The service is open between 24 May and 4 June and those who register for their vaccination during this period will be allocated the first available slots from mid-June until the end of July.

But anyone in this age group who does not register for whatever reason will still receive a blue envelope appointment.

To sign up, visit nhsinform.scot/under30register or call 0800 030 8013.


‘A matter of practicality’

University of St Andrews psychologist Prof Stephen Reicher, who advises the UK and Scottish governments, said the message should be that it is important to get both jabs. But he said it was not as simple as assuming people were to blame for not going for their vaccinations.

He said: “Sometimes it’s a matter of practicality. Getting to the SECC if you have caring responsibilities over the weekend, or if you are a single parent and you have got to take a couple of buses to get there, it is quite tricky.

“It makes sense that rather than ask people to come to you, to go into communities, take mobile labs there to get people vaccinated.

“We also need to talk to people and understand what their concerns are.”

Hospital admissions in Glasgow have increased recently, and the health secretary said the Scottish government would be monitoring whether this figure translates into more severe cases which require ICU treatment

Mr Yousaf also said this new variant meant it was “vitally important” that people received both doses of the vaccination when it was offered.

“The second dose offers greater and longer lasting protection, and should not be missed,” he said.

“We want everyone to come forward for a vaccine and we continue to work with community organisations to address any barriers people may experience to ensure that everyone is able to get an appointment.

“The vaccines we have are extremely safe and highly effective.”

Letter ‘issues’

The Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells said the number of missed vaccine appointments was “extremely concerning” and called for further transparency from the government on the issue.

She said: “If there are any issues with people receiving their appointment letters on time, then SNP ministers must give health boards the resources to ensure that people’s details are fully up-to-date.

“That is even more important now as we encourage younger people to take up the vaccine and ensure we can safely ease restrictions in the coming weeks.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP added: “Younger age groups are more likely to move frequently and have less contact with their GPs so the government should be exploring a range of options as to how they can get people registered and get their jab.

“If you did not receive your letter, please check with your GP.”

Scots have ‘head in the sand’ attitude towards risks of alcohol consumption and bowel cancer, says charity – The Scotsman

Aound 3,700 people a year die from alcohol-related causes in Scotland according to most recent data, and people must become more aware of the risk factors and mitigations, said Alcohol Focus Scotland.

The charity also urged Scots to take up the offer of a bowel screening test, which can save lives.

The most recent data, from 2015, shows that 578 men and 124 women were hospitalised with alcohol-related bowel cancer, while 164 men and 31 women died because of the disease.

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Alison Douglas, Chief Executive Alcohol Focus Scotland, photographed at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

“People really don’t understand the link between alcohol and cancer,” said Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.

“The majority of us don’t know that alcohol causes cancer, and that’s a real problem. We all know drinking is risky, and it’s up to us individually to make our own decisions about how much we choose to drink, but if we don’t have the knowledge, and the information isn’t available easily to hand, it makes it more difficult for us to make informed decisions.”

Alcohol Focus Scotland has called for mandatory health warnings on alcohol products, similar to those on tobacco, and for guidance from the Chief Medical Officer to be displayed.

Many Scots have a “head in the sand” attitude to the risks of alcohol consumption and bowel cancer, Ms Douglas said, and she urged people to take up offers of bowel screening.

Professor Bob Steele heads up the Scottish Bowel Screening Programme and is the lead specialist on bowel cancer in Scotland

“It’s probably for many of us our worst fear to get a diagnosis of cancer,” she said.

“We just don’t want to engage with or hear about cancer, and that is a challenge for people that are trying to communicate health information and trying to help people reduce the risks where they can.

“We’ve all got a genetic inheritance that puts us at greater or lesser risk but we all have control over what we eat and drink, and how we exercise – things that we can actually influence and take control of, and alcohol consumption is one of them.”

Professor Bob Steele, senior research fellow at Dundee University and founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network, also urged people to take up screening.

Tests are offered to everyone in Scotland aged 50 to 74, every two years.

Uptake is around 60 per cent, and Prof Steele would like to see this increase.

The main reasons for people avoiding the test are being put off by its nature, being afraid of a cancer diagnosis, or simply being “too busy”, he said.

But early detection of bowel cancer could be life-saving.

“The fundamental importance is that bowel cancer in its early stages is a curable disease, and in its late stage it’s incurable,” said Prof Steele.

“If you find a very early bowel cancer that’s treated with surgery – and sometimes it doesn’t even need surgery, sometimes it can be removed at the same time as a colonoscopy – whereas for late stage disease there’s very little chance of cure, it’s as simple as that.

“We know that the best way of detecting early bowel cancer is by screening, because early bowel cancer doesn’t cause symptoms, so by the time you actually have symptoms that have been caused by a bowel cancer it’s usually quite an advanced tumour.”