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North man accuses NHS Highland of 'patronising and unsatisfactory' response to coronavirus Freedom of Information request


By Alan Hendry

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Keith Banks wanted to know the precise numbers of people in Caithness who had tested positive and also how many in the county had died as a result of the virus.
Keith Banks wanted to know the precise numbers of people in Caithness who had tested positive and also how many in the county had died as a result of the virus.

A NORTH man who made a Freedom of Information request about Covid-19 numbers in Caithness has described the response from NHS Highland as "patronising" and "unsatisfactory".

Keith Banks feels that the limited details supplied by the health board reflect a "nanny knows best" mentality and he has called for a review.

Freedom of Information legislation gives members of the public the right to ask to see recorded information held by public authorities.

Mr Banks lodged his request as he wanted to know the precise numbers of people in Caithness who had tested positive and also how many in the county had died as a result of coronavirus.

The response from NHS Highland's Freedom of Information team, dated October 2, gave details for the period between March 1 and August 23.

It said fewer than 15 positive cases of Covid-19 with a Caithness postcode during that timescale could be identified.

It also said fewer than 10 deaths mentioning Covid-19 on the death certificate could be identified in Caithness in the same date range.

The response added that, due to the low numbers of patients involved, no further specific information could be given. "Information released should not identify either explicitly or inexplicitly any individuals," NHS Highland said, adding that the information being sought by Mr Banks constituted personal data – disclosure of which would contravene data protection principles.

This, the health board said, would make the information exempt in terms of Section 38 (1) (b) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

In his email to NHS Highland asking for a review, Mr Banks, of Wick, said: "I have not requested any information, either directly or in oblique terms, that can be deemed personal information about any individual or individuals."

He argues that it is "not competent" to rely on Section 38 (1) (b) of the Freedom of Information Act. He goes on to assert that none of the principles set out in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), covering data protection and privacy in the European Union, would be breached.

Mr Banks said: "In common with just about everyone else, I would like to know the precise numbers of people in Caithness who have tested positive and also how many people in Caithness have died as a consequence of Covid-19.

"I'm not satisfied with the response from NHS Highland. They haven't provided that information, and what they have provided is not helpful and reassuring to the public in a health crisis – indeed, if anything, their response fuels the anxiety within the community.

"NHS Highland is behaving like 'nanny knows best', and as a member of the public I consider that attitude to be patronising and offensive.

"The response they provided certainly is not transparent. I'd describe it as betraying a culture driven by elusiveness and evasiveness.

"The rationale for keeping the public pretty much in the dark over why the exact numbers cannot be revealed needs to be explained. Regrettably, NHS Highland appears to be unwilling to be honest with the public. Why, I ask?

"The public should be empowered and entitled to make informed choices about their health and wellbeing during the pandemic. I believe NHS Highland should show some respect for the public interest, and reveal the precise figures."

The rationale for keeping the public pretty much in the dark over why the exact numbers cannot be revealed needs to be explained.

He points out that Article 4 (1) of GDPR 2018 gives the Information Commissioner's Office definition of personal data. "I have suggested NHS Highland revert to and carefully consider that definition before they respond to my request for a review."

Mr Banks said that if his request for a review is turned down he will appeal the case to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

In the meantime he has lodged a further Freedom of Information request with NHS Highland asking for the precise number of cases diagnosed in Caithness, together with the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the county, between August 24 and October 7.

Dr Tim Allison, director of public health for NHS Highland, said: "We can understand why there may be concern among local communities about the possibility of Covid-19 being in the area. However, we are not commenting on the presence of individual community cases.

"Numbers on confirmed cases of Covid-19 are released by the Scottish Government and these are broken down to local authority area. There is also further information on areas both at local authority and at a smaller locality level available via the Public Health Scotland dashboard.

"We know that positive cases and rumours of positive cases can cause local anxiety in the community. Please be reassured that where positive cases are identified our health protection team undertake follow-up, including contact tracing, with the case and issue appropriate advice and guidance to the relevant individuals and to organisations.

"There is evidence of increasing transmission of Covid-19 across Scotland. Covid-19 is still here and it is important that everyone takes responsibility and follows the national guidance to keep them and others safe."

Dr Allison added: "Everyone in Highland, Argyll and Bute has a role to play to keep the number of positive cases as low as possible. Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should be tested.

"You can book a test for yourself, someone you care for, or a child in your care. To be tested, you or your household member should be displaying symptoms such as new, continuous cough, fever or loss of, or change in, sense of smell or taste. More information can be found on the NHS Inform website."



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