Why a public inquiry into the Edinburgh Sick Kids debacle is the right call – Ian Swanson

Despite concernes about costs and delays it is surely right that senior figures will have to explain their actions, says Ian Swanson

Tuesday, 24th September 2019, 6:00 am
Lord Hardie has still not published his tram inquiry findings 18 months after public hearings concluded. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

IT seemed scandalous enough that the replacement for Edinburgh’s much-loved but now inadequate Sick Kids Hospital was already seven years overdue, held up by a variety of problems from the way it would be funded to firms going bust.

But when, early in July, it was announced that the planned move to the new site was being called off at just 100 hours’ notice it left patients, staff and public aghast.

How could a brand new £150m hospital which had already passed inspections and been handed over to the health board suddenly be found to be sub-standard and requiring so much work it could not open for another year?

Where had it gone wrong? Why had no-one found the problems earlier? How could it have been approved as safe and complete? What other ticking time bombs might be concealed in the new building?

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Edinburgh’s Sick Kids hospital won’t open for another year

Now these are among the issues expected to be examined by an independent public inquiry to be established by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. She had initially dismissed the need for such a move but announced her U-turn shortly before a Holyrood debate where she faced more criticism over the project.

Some may question whether a public inquiry into the new Sick Kids debacle is a good use of public money or just a sop to opposition politicians.

When he announced the public inquiry into the Capital’s over-budget and over-time tram project in 2014, Alex Salmond said it would be “swift and thorough”. The inquiry has run up costs of £10m and Lord Hardie’s report is still awaited, nearly 18 months after the public hearings concluded.

Whatever Lord Hardie eventually recommends, however, the inquiry has already done an important job in laying out the facts behind the tram fiasco and forcing those in charge from the council and the tram company, along with top executives from the contractors, not used to having to be accountable, to answer questions in public about their actions.

It has not yet been announced who will lead the Sick Kids inquiry, what its precise remit will be, when it will start or when it might report. But its task will be to do a similar job in holding those in charge to account.

In addition to the problems with the ventialtion system – the direct cause of the delay – people who worked on the project have told the Evening News of concerns over other aspects of the project, including fire safety, inadequate drainage and design flaws “built into” the hospital.

An internal inquiry conducted by the Scottish Government into NHS Lothian’s handling of the project would not satsify the need for the public to find out what mistakes were made and how.

The MSPs on Holyrood’s health and sport committee could have carried out their own inquiry, which would no doubt have proved cheaper and quicker. But politicians putting other politicians on the spot over their conduct can quickly descend into party political point-scoring, which could obscure the issues and reduce public confidence in the findings.

The public inquiry into the new Sick Kids Hospital – and Glasgow’s troubled Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, built by the same contractors – will have the power to compel the production of evidence and the appearance of witnesses. Senior figures in the Scottish Government, the health board and the contractors will all have to explain themselves in public. When a new children’s hospital is at the centre of such controversy, surely that is the least that should be expected.