IF you fancy a top job in an SNP administration Jeane Freeman’s journey to Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is probably not the most useful template. Until 15 years ago she was a top adviser to a Labour First Minister. Four years ago she was a private citizen before putting her name forward to represent her home patch of Carrick, Cumnock and Doune Valley.

Yet in between these brackets came some epiphanies which were to alter not just her politics but her ambitions for herself and her country. “I’d always paid attention to politics thanks to my Dad. So I’d been thinking and reading and talking a bit more, and then when the SNP government first got elected I realised I couldn’t find anything to argue with. Then I went to an SNP conference and listened to Nicola and thought ‘there’s nothing here I disagree with; why am I not joining this party’?”

Then came 2104 and the run up to the referendum, where she and a handful of others founded the Women for Independence movement. “There had been about five of us complaining to each other on social media about it probably all going to be about a bunch of men again. And then we thought, maybe we should stop complaining and do something about it. Not just sitting back and letting other people decide what women are thinking. Remember the full name of the group is Women for Independence and Independence for Women.”

In the 2015 UK General Election she was asked if she might stand, “but I didn’t want to go to Westminster. However when the MSP for my home patch was standing down that was different.

“I didn’t want to be an MSP for anywhere else and didn’t put my name forward for anywhere else. Plus I’ve always liked campaigning and canvassing with a well organised team.”

Her decision not to stand again next year has nothing to do with the strain of being health secretary in a pandemic, she insists. “It’s a huge job in any circumstances and a huge privilege to do it.

“When the pandemic came along it meant that ten hour days became 14 hour days and a bit of a weekend becomes all of it.

“But that wasn’t the trigger. It taught me that I could work at pace, and that I could be resilient but the question was did I want to do that for another five years? Nobody knows how long they’ve got on this earth and I don’t dwell on that, but I needed to decide what I want to do with that time. It was a hard call because I like being health secretary and I like being in government.”

The health job put her squarely in the frontline alongside the First Minister and also put her in the firing line when the death toll rose, not least in Scotland’s care homes.

The fact that most were in the private sector was little protection, especially when the elderly were being decanted into them from hospitals and hard questions were being asked about their being tested for Covid-19 in advance.

Clearly the history of that particular crisis is seared into her memory banks. She recalls her statement to parliament in early March saying that the health service would need to expect 80% of the population to be at risk of infection, 4% of that cohort needing hospitalised and 2% of them needing intensive care.

The necessary arithmetic included not just greatly increased bed space, but tripling intensive care capacity. “So we decided to pause some non urgent services and make a real effort to reduced delayed discharge from hospitals. And often that delay is down to a lack of support for patients who no longer need treatment. It doesn’t mean the support wasn’t there, but it wasn’t organised.”

She says that whilst that policy position was down to her and the Scottish Government “the actual decision about whether you’re ready to be discharged is down to the clinician, the patient and their family, and the care home if one is involved. I don’t control care homes and if they don’t want to accept you they have a perfect right to say so.

“But the guidance we sent out as part of the risk assessment included asking if the patient would have their own room, if they could be isolated for 14 days if that was necessary and that communal dining and activities should be reduced or ideally stopped.

“We knew that would put pressure on staffing and we said in the guidance they shouldn’t bring staff in from elsewhere. But there is a big difference between what I can expect from the health service and what I could expect from care sector homes, over which I have no jurisdiction.”

Nevertheless she knows very well that the number of care home deaths is a statistic which haunts any debate and freely admits that “if I knew then what I know now then we would have taken different decisions. People forget that we, and the global community became aware of the virus in January in terms of trying to understand how it infects people. Guidance based on that work constantly changes. People perceive that we got it wrong the first time round and then changed it. Not necessarily!”

She has asked Public Health Scotland for all the data around discharges during that period and at what date discharging patients were tested. “Tests are really important, but they only tell you if you are negative on that day. And at that time there was still huge scientific debate around whether asymptomatic people were infectious. If a patient was positive a month before discharge they would not be on discharge. But if they were negative at discharge they might become infectious a week later. None of this is straightforward.”

Throughout the pandemic there have been constant rumblings from some quarters that Scotland should stay “in lockstep with the UK Government,” and from others that she should have gone their own way. She concedes squaring these circles hasn’t been easy. “But one of the really important decisions we took was to try very hard to take party and constitutional politics out of this, whilst asserting the right of the Scottish government to take decisions which were right for Scotland.”

That latter thought was what prompted setting up a separate advisory group from SAGE in London, although some were members of both. “SAGE has to look at the UK position. Scotland is very different geographically from the Midlands and the south of England and we needed scientific and clinical assessments of how the virus was running here.”

She says that Scottish expertise in local health protection is “really solid” and has been a good foundation for the test and protect system, backed up by national decision making if an outbreak like Aberdeen requires it.

For localised spikes like Gretna she thinks the local incident management teams do a good job of containment and preventing community transmission.

She is also suitably diplomatic on her English counterpart’s decision to dismantle Public Health England: “In the middle of a pandemic, I’m not convinced it’s the best time for structural change.”

ON the best path towards independence and indyref2 she insists that wanting an infusion of greater urgency and maintaining a steady course are not mutually exclusive options. Her view is that whilst the government is having a conversation with the public about how it goes about its business, focussing on the job, and taking decisions, the Yes movement as a whole should be talking to the country about how much more Scotland could do “with the powers of a normal country.”

“The combination of these two approaches is important and will see an increase in support. People will look at the UK and elsewhere in the world, make comparisons and conclude that they are where they want to be. Of course there are arguments still to be made and won about the economy and foreign affairs, but we can do that.

“But in keeping on doing this we absolutely refuse to fight amongst ourselves. Progressive movements are littered with failures because of fighting internally – which is mad! Donald Dewar said we are a disputatious nation and we are.

“But my view is let’s get to the point where we have the powers of a normal country and then we can argue about what to do with them to our heart’s content. But let’s get them first. And the way we get them is to convince more and more people that collectively we can do this. We won’t convince them if we look like it’s a bunch of egos fighting.”

She suggests that the “woman in the street” is more preoccupied with health, staying safe and staying employed than by arguments about power. “And if we suddenly get into a major back and forth with the UK government then we run the risk of losing people because they don’t know what we’re talking about.”

And the risk of losing people because of a perceived lack of urgency with Brexit et al coming down the track? “You’re suggesting the only people who can get involved are the government. It doesn’t mean the movement shouldn’t be raising these issues and putting a spotlight on what is happening.

“The movement needs to pay attention to people like Mike Russell fighting these battles every single day on behalf of the government. He’s not flying by the seat of his pants. And, to be blunt, if the movement doesn’t know that then it’s not paying attention.”