HEALTH Secretary Jeane Freeman said she wants to speak to the medics who led a review into Glasgow's infection-hit paediatric cancer wards to find out what "obstacles and difficulties" they faced in their investigation.

In an apparent swipe at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Ms Freeman told MSPs that she "did not understand" why she was not informed of the review's findings at the time and revealed she had yet to receive a copy of the unpublished report five days after details of it first emerged, including revelations about the death of 10-year-old leukaemia patient Milly Main.

The internal probe was carried out early this year following a string of infections linked to the water supply in wards 2A and 2B of Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Children (RHC) between 2016 and 2018, eventually culminating in a decision to close the wards in September 2018 while remedial works are carried out.

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According to a whistleblower, who approached Labour MSP Anas Sarwar, the clinician-led review - conducted early this year - uncovered up to 26 cases of bloodstream infections potentially linked to the water supply in 2017 alone.

This was much higher than the one case previously recorded by Health Protection Scotland for wards 2A and 2B during that year.

The 26 cases also included a previously unreported child death - later confirmed to be that of Milly Main.

The findings were shared internally, but not with parents or the Health Secretary.

In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Ms Freeman said: "I don't understand that.

"As I said, the clinician-led review was not advised to Government by the health board and that is work we are undertaking: to have that information from the board, to look at the review, to see what actions the board took, and if we are unhappy or dissatisfied with any of that, we will take action.

"I would also hope to be able at some point, if it is appropriate for the individuals involved, to speak to the clinicians who led that review and understand personally from them what their experience was and what more we need to do to understand what they came up against in terms of obstacles and difficulties in carrying out that work."

Around 100 to 150 patients were treated in wards 2A and 2B between 2016 and their closure last year.

Since then paediatric cancer patients have been treated in Ward 6A of the adjacent Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, though it too had to be closed to new admissions due to a spike in infections, with new patients sent to Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

READ MORE: Health Secretary issues apology to parents over Glasgow hospital child deaths

Milly Main was making a good recovery from leukaemia following a successful stem cell transplant in July 2017, but suffered toxic shock when her Hickman line - a catheter used to administer drugs - became infected with the bacteria Stenotrophomonas.

She died days later, with the infection listed as among the causes of her death.

Her mother, Kimberly Darroch, said she was convinced contaminated water was the source of the infection, noting that shower heads in her room had been changed on more than one occasion.

It also emerged at the weekend that police are investigating the death in the same unit weeks before of a three-year-old boy, Mason Djemat, who was being treated for a genetic condition.

The Crown Office is already investigating the deaths in December 2018 and January this year of two cancer patients, a 10-year-old boy and 73-year-old woman, who had contracted a bug linked to pigeon droppings during treatment at the QEUH.

Ms Freeman told STV five other families had contacted her directly with concerns since the weekend, with "much more" approaching Professor Colin White - the Scottish Government's official point of contact for QEUH and RHC infections.

In a sign of increasing tensions between Ms Freeman and the scandal-hit health board, the Health Secretary also made a point of praising the the whistleblower who had alerted Mr Sarwar to the existence of the internal review.

In a statement to MSPs, Ms Freeman said: "There is no room in our health service for anyone to criticise whistleblowers, publicly or otherwise - or to put them in fear for the safety of their jobs.

"We need to recognise that whistle-blowing is not something people who have dedicated their lives to health care, do lightly. It takes courage and they should be thanked."

READ MORE: Mother of girl at centre of Glasgow infection death scandal demands answers 

Her comments are at odds with a statement issued by NHS GGC last week, when a spokesman said it was "extremely disappointing" that the whistleblower had claimed a connection between Stenotrophomonas in Milly's death and the unit's water supply.

The statement stressed that it was "not possible to conclude that these infections were connected to the water supply" and that such a claim had caused "additional distress" to families of children with cancer.

Labour MSP and health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said parents affected "feel completely failed, and the wider public is losing confidence".

She urged Ms Freeman to state whether the Scottish Government "will take greater control over the running of the health board", by escalating it to Level Five status.

Ms Freeman said it was up to the chief executive of NHS Scotland to determine a health board's escalation status, adding: "I will not be rushed into wrong decisions simply to satisfy members of this chamber."

A spokesman for NHS GGC apologised to affected families, adding: "Our communication with families and parents has not been good enough and we deeply regret this.

"We continue to take steps to improve communications and to answer questions openly and truthfully.

"We are also working with Professor Craig White to develop better ways of engaging with families.

"Within NHS GGC, we encourage staff to raise problems with their managers or with their trade union.

"We have a robust whistleblowing policy which enables staff to raise concerns and have them dealt with in full confidence. We will continue to support staff in this process.

"There are clearly lessons for this Board to learn and we are committed to making the necessary improvements."