HEALTH Secretary Jeane Freeman has been accused of “cowardly” behaviour after it emerged that the public will no longer be able to ask her questions at NHS summits.

New guidance reveals that Ministers, who take charge of the reviews of NHS boards, will not take part in the “public session” element any more.

That will be a matter for the boards themselves, while the Minister will schedule a visit to an NHS facility or meet health service staff.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: “This is a bad look for Jeane Freeman who appears to be hiding from the public.”

“Stripping members of the public of the opportunity to ask the Cabinet Secretary questions is a step backwards.”

The NHS, which accounts for nearly 40% of the devolved budget, continues to suffer from a range of financial and governance problems.

Freeman, who took over as Health Secretary in the summer, recently announced that she would give boards until 2021 to meet vital patient waiting times guarantees.

She also said that “brokerage” loans given to ailing NHS boards, thought to total around £150m, would not have to be repaid.

An Audit Scotland report also stated that the NHS north of the border is "not in a financially sustainable position".

Against this backdrop of pressure, supporters of the NHS believe it is vital for the Health Secretary to be open and accessible with the public.

In 2004, the then Labour Minister Andy Kerr was the first politician to personally chair each health board’s annual review and hold the sessions in public.

The SNP Government maintained this practice and Ministers, across the country, have been quizzed by citizens during a review.

Official papers state that the format used to have two stages on the same day: a public session, which could be attended by a Minister, at which attendees could ask questions of the Government and the board. And there was a private meeting.

However, the Scottish Government circulated new guidance in September which overhauled the format and gave Ministers an exemption from the public session.

All the territorial boards, such as struggling NHS Tayside and NHS Lothian, will receive a “ministerial review”, but the refreshed guidance states:

“As such, Ministers will not be holding a public session/Q&A as part of this season of Reviews.”

The Government added that that “expectation” is that NHS boards will meet in public separately, which does “not need to take place on the same day as the Board’s Ministerial Review”.

It continued: “Ministers will replace the public session in their Review schedule with a visit to a nearby NHS facility/service and/or a meeting with staff.” 

Freeman will this week undertake the review of NHS Forth Valley, but a Government email obtained by the Herald on Sunday stated:

“Please note that no public session will be part of the Review day.”

In another change to the guidance, the Ministerial review will take place with just the Board chair and chief executive, rather than all board members.

Lennon, who is Scottish Labour’s shadow health secretary, added: “The annual review of NHS boards should be transparent. Closing the doors on the public and meeting the health board in private is not the action of a confident Health Secretary. It’s cowardly.”

“Long waiting times for surgery, creaking mental health services, delayed discharges, underfunded social care and GP shortages are affecting people right across Scotland.”

“We need a Health Secretary who is willing to listen to the public about the challenges facing the NHS.”

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “A valuable opportunity for public scrutiny is being lost.

“At a time when SNP leadership of our health service deserves to be put under the microscope, it seems like a retrograde step for the Health Secretary to be retreating from the front line.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Miles Briggs said: "It is only right and proper in our parliamentary democracy that Ministers and NHS Boards undergo public scrutiny. Removing one of the precious few opportunities the public has to hold the SNP Health Secretary to account is an affront to that.

"Nicola Sturgeon has proven she won't accept cross-party appeals to fix waiting times and struggling General Practice. That's why many people feel this is the only way they can make the SNP listen.

"Sturgeon is presiding over a secret Scotland under the SNP and it is getting worse."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “There is no change to the core purpose of annual reviews, which is to hold NHS boards to account.

“In terms of format, Ministers will continue to have separate meetings with the Area Clinical Forum (ACF), Area Partnership Forum (APF) and local patients on the mornings of ministerial reviews.”

“In addition, we expect boards to hold public Q&A sessions as part of this season of reviews.”