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Artillery Row

Is England denying Scotland vital PPE?

The supposed scandal in Scotland has got the facts back to front

Four governments are handling the coronavirus crisis in the UK – health policy and provision being devolved in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The result has produced some nuanced differences to tackling the virus -for instance the announcement that all Welsh and Scottish schools would close foreshadowed Boris Johnson’s identical decision for England’s schools. But when differences are measured in a few hours or by a slightly different emphasis, the broader point is reinforced –  the four nations of the UK had the opportunity to do things differently and have instead chosen similar paths.

This is daily illustrated in the press conferences led by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She is flanked by the Scottish government’s senior medical and scientific advisers who articulate the same message that their English counter-parts provide for the daily Downing Street briefings. Depending upon your view, this is devolution’s failure to challenge a British Isles-wide group-think or an encouraging sign of how the existing level of devolution is working well and not fracturing a united front against a deadly enemy.

The crisis has put historic enmities into cold storage, nationalists and unionists are working as collegiately as could be hoped for, given the formidable pressures being faced.

At least, that was the comradely view until a story gained traction on Tuesday that English PPE suppliers had been ordered to divert supplies destined for Scottish care homes to England. It was unclear whether this command had been ordered by NHS England or Public Health England or by the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, but whoever was the myopic blockhead responsible, it was grist to the mill of Scotland’s keyboard battalions of Anglophobes.

What gave the story legs was the supporting evidence. An enquirer to an English PPE supplier had been met with the reply, “we have strict guidelines from the DHSC [department of health and social care] … can be sold to Care Homes, Hospices and Homecare providers in England only.” A similar response was received by a Welsh enquirer from the Wiltshire-based supplier, Gompels, which stated, “can I suggest you direct your attention to Public Health England or Department of Health and Social Care. We are only carrying out their instructions. It could have something to do with devolution perhaps!”

“Strict guidelines” and “instructions” – it seemed damning, even although exactly who issued them remained unclear.

In the midst of this fog, Tuesday’s Scottish government press conference was held. Nicola Sturgeon addressed the rumours, confirmed the facts were not clear but stated that it would be “unconscionable and unacceptable” if English suppliers were being told not to handle Scottish requests.

The Scottish health minister, Jeane Freeman, then said, “we are urgently seeking clarity around this situation. I had intended to raise that personally with the UK health secretary today but he has cancelled the planned call so I have instead written to him to remind him that he specifically does not have my agreement to the centralisation of ordering or distribution of PPE or the diversion of orders placed in Scotland to social care or the health service.”

NHS England has provided Scotland with over 11 million PPE items.

It was an unfortunate moment for Matt Hancock to go missing in action. He was quickly retrieved to re-discover the time to call Freeman. He duly reassured her that no such England-only order had been issued either by his department, NHS England or Public Health England. At the early-evening Downing Street briefing, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, confirmed that “there’s no truth in those stories.”

This was not just the word of English Tories. Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director in Scotland, went further, “we have looked into it and we think it’s rubbish. So, the companies, and our colleagues at NHS England yesterday when we spoke to them, said it wasn’t true. There’s another element of this though, that the English route for PPE is one of three routes that Scotland has access to PPE from. So we are in a four-country fight against this virus. Honestly, people might not believe me, but that four-countries fight is pretty aligned.”

By the evening, these refutations were being widely reported, but in a journalistic context of how they added to the confusion, rather than proof that the England-only order did not exist.

The confusion narrative led BBC Scotland’s main evening news programme, “The Nine.” It conducted an interview with Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, who repeated the claims that care home providers had contacted him to say they were finding it “virtually impossible” to get hold of PPE and “what they’re being told by providers in England is that they are unable to deliver to Scotland because of instructions they have received.” Challenged by the news presenter that Rishi Sunak had said claim was “a load of rubbish” (words that were actually uttered by Jason Leitch), Macaskill replied, “your piece tonight showed with the evidence that this is not a load of rubbish. My members are not talking nonsense they are trying to do the best for the people they serve.”

In this telling of the tale it was either cock-up or conspiracy, but either way Scotland was being denied life-saving equipment by England. Readers of The National, the independence-backing Scottish newspaper that is the sister paper of the Herald and Glasgow Times were left in no doubt that it was the British state’s conspiracy, and not the British state’s cock-up. Its front page had Matt Hancock guilty without being allowed to enter a plea:

Yet, whilst readers of The National were digesting with their breakfast claims that were being headlined as “shocking revelation reveals truth” – truth – “about ‘family of equals,’” Scots tuned into Good Morning Britain could listen to Nicola Sturgeon say, “We’ve had assurances from the UK Government that that is not an instruction that’s been given from the NHS in England or Public Health England and I am willing to accept that assurance.” All she asked for is that private suppliers were aware they should not discriminate according to the side of the border or between hospitals and care homes. “I hope,” she concluded, “that we can see that collaborative approach continue because, in the main, we’ve all been working across all of these issues really collaboratively and cooperatively up until now.”

Further detail was provided a few hours later at the Scottish government’s daily press conference when Jeane Freeman explained that Scotland has its own pandemic stock, which is distributed by NSS (Scotland’s national procurement organisation). The Scottish government’s advice to Scottish Care, the association for care homes led by Donald Macaskill, was that their normal PPE suppliers will continue to take their orders and supply them and the Scottish government would top-up that supply from Scotland’s own stockpile.

Each of the UK’s four nations have their own stocks. The PPE equipment being warehoused for distribution at Gompels in Wiltshire was not being diverted from Scotland. It was part of NHS England’s own stockpile that had already been assigned for distribution in England. Perfectly properly it was thus already “spoken for” and therefore not available to Scottish care homes who were widening their search for available supplies.

But whilst that particular stock was unavailable, NHS England continues to source additional PPE equipment not just for England but for the entire UK. As a spokesperson from the department of health confirmed yesterday, “Our PPE strategy is UK-wide … Through this four-nation approach, we are working closely with the devolved administrations to co-ordinate the distribution of PPE evenly across the UK.”

What this means is that whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own stockpiles for their own use, they are also continuously and additionally topped up by NHS England which as well as supplying England is also acting in a UK-wide capacity.

So far, NHS England has provided Scotland with over 11 million PPE items.

If only The National will delete the word “shocking” from its Wednesday headline. It could then more accurately read, “revelation reveals truth about ‘family of equals.’”

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