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Not 'if', but 'when'

Brian Taylor | 14:25 UK time, Thursday, 20 November 2008

She finished strongly, did Nicola Sturgeon. She was confident and controlled.

But this was also one of the most persistent and well-argued challenges mounted by the Opposition at Holyrood.

The topic? Clostridium Difficile or c.Diff.

More particularly, the splendid investigation by my colleague Sam Poling on BBC Scotland which has disclosed the inadequacies of the investigation into the outbreak at the Vale of Leven Hospital.

For Labour, Iain Gray got to work. Why no public inquiry? Why was the health secretary the only remaining obstacle to such scrutiny?

It was an entirely legitimate question: well-mustered and well-presented.

It fell to Ms Sturgeon to respond directly because she was standing in for the indisposed first minister.

Past responsibility

Questioned first by Mr Gray and then by Annabel Goldie, she never wavered.

Only at one point did she resort to suggesting, mildly in passing, that some responsibility might lie with delays occasioned by the previous administration.

Mostly, she took it.

She listed short and long term efforts to resolve the problem: single rooms for patients in future; new hand washing regimes; new responsibility for senior nurses; no more privatisation of cleaning contracts.

But still - and rightly - Mr Gray persisted. Why no full public inquiry - when the immediate inquiry had been shown by the BBC to be insufficient?

Let's cut to the chase, here. I believe it is highly likely there will be such a public inquiry. I believe, further, it is largely a question of when not if.

The health secretary's judgement is that she should not announce such an inquiry now while police inquiries into the deaths are continuing.

Exceptionally prolonged

Those inquiries, she indicated, might result in a Fatal Accident Inquiry or, possibly, prosecution.

As Iain Gray pointed out, that process does not of itself preclude a public inquiry. Ms Sturgeon stressed she had never relied upon such a point.

The police inquiries will proceed. If truncated, a public inquiry would, in all probability, follow.

My belief is that, if those inquiries are exceptionally prolonged, then Ms Sturgeon will exercise her power to call a public inquiry regardless.

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