SCOTLAND'S national public health body has been hit by a "conflict of interest" row after a document emerged reportedly showing one of its duties is to protect the reputation of government ministers.

The Times reported that Public Health Scotland, which investigated the discharge of hospital patients into care homes last year, has an agreed "communications framework" with the Scottish Government and Cosla, the council umbrella body.

Scottish Labour said the revelation raised "serious questions about a conflict of interest that need to be resolved", and accused the SNP of "control freakery".

The Tories called for a "new, truly independent report on what went wrong in Scotland’s care homes", and raised fears the investigation by PHS may have been "compromised".

The communications framework reportedly instructs PHS to manage "risk", adding: "Risk management in relation to communications will primarily relate to reducing the potential impact of the risk on the reputation and credibility of the organisations, which may also impact the wider NHS and local authorities."

The document sets out a risk scoring system, with communications which could cause "sustained or widespread criticism of the Scottish Government" and "ministers being pressed to make a statement to parliament" ranked "very high/severe".

In order to score communications, the framework reportedly says PHS should consider questions including: "Does it challenge – or could it be interpreted as a critique of – Scottish Government position or policy?"

The PHS care homes report, published in October, revealed that between March 1 and April 21, 2020, there were 3,599 discharges from hospitals to care homes, with the majority (81.9 per cent) not tested for coronavirus.

Speaking at the time of its publication, Ms Sturgeon said the report concluded that allowing for other factors, such as the size of a care home, "hospital discharges were not found to have contributed to a significantly higher risk of an outbreak".

PHS later said it "cannot rule out a small effect, particularly for those patients who were discharged untested or discharged positive".

A spokeswoman for PHS said: "The Office for Statistics Regulation regulates the production official statistics, and this includes the work of PHS. 

"This included the production of the Hospital Discharges to Care Homes Report, which was produced independently by PHS in partnership with the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

"PHS discharges its duties with integrity and is committed to work that is both open and transparent. 

"A risk assessment for all publications is undertaken to inform supporting communications and for the awareness of our sponsors, the Scottish government and Cosla. 

"It does not change the substance, content or independence of those producing publications."

Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “Scots believed PHS was an independent voice subjecting life or death decisions during the pandemic to serious scrutiny.

“But these reports raise serious questions about a conflict of interest that need to be resolved.

“It is just another example of the micromanagement and control freakery which defines the SNP.

“Public agencies don’t exist to protect the reputation of ministers and a competent government has nothing to fear from honest accountability.

“On vital matters of public health, Scotland deserve answers, not nationalist spin.” 

Scottish Tory health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “There is a blatant conflict of interest in Public Health Scotland judging SNP ministers, who the agency has a duty to protect from criticism.

“The Public Health Scotland report on Covid deaths in care homes was controversial from the start. It was delayed and when it was finally released, the SNP set about spinning lines and downplaying its findings.

“Grieving families were furious at the lack of answers it gave.

“This news calls into question if the findings of that report were compromised. The revelation that Public Health Scotland must protect SNP ministers may well explain why key information was omitted.

“We now need a new, truly independent report on what went wrong in Scotland’s care homes, where more than 3,000 people tragically lost their lives. Families deserve comprehensive analysis they can trust.”