ONE morning in early April 2020, as Covid-19 began to extend its icy fingers, Jeane Freeman, Scotland’s Health Secretary, momentarily felt overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge which faced her.

“It was during my drive through from Glasgow to St Andrews House at a time when our capital city would normally be buzzing with commuters and workers,” she said. “But that morning it was completely closed. And I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, I hope we’re right’.” It was quickly followed by another thought: “Who the hell did I think I was? Why should they listen to me?”

For the first time since leaving government last year, the woman who, along with Nicola Sturgeon, helped plot Scotland’s recovery route through the darkest days of the pandemic, reflects on the two years which changed the face of the country and defined her entire career.

In the three months or so before the public had begun to realise that what faced them was unprecedented in its scale and nature the Scottish Government was already working towards an emergency plan. “The numbers we were being given across the UK of those likely to be infected; the percentage who would end up in ICU; the percentage of those who would die were huge. And that’s when we kind of knew a lockdown would be inevitable.

“Then it became a matter of managing it and, crucially, of gaining the trust of the population. How could you expect people to trust you if you didn’t appear to have grasped the numbers and done your homework? People were trusting us with their lives and we were asking them to limit their personal freedoms to an unprecedented extent.”

More than two years later her contempt and anger about the conduct of the Downing Street operation throughout this period still burns. It had become obvious that there was a different mind-set at work within the UK Government as a mafia-like, get-rich-quick scheme was shown to be operating among UK ministers and their friends under the gaze of Boris Johnson. Not to mention the year-long, Downing Street Covid bacchanal. Was there a sense of betrayal in the Scottish Government Covid taskforce?

“I had two thoughts when Downing Street’s PPE shenanigans became evident: thank f*** we didn’t need to rely on them for PPE because we’ve got our own procurement systems in place and they were good and they worked. Especially when it came to creating new distribution routes and networks. So thank God. And, by the way, we gave the UK Government some of our PPE supplies.

“The second thought was: ‘Dear God! There are some Tories who will always be Tories, eh? That in the midst of a vast human tragedy and all the heartache and suffering and sense of national crisis that these people would still find a way to make a buck. It was absolutely sickening.

“We had many English people coming forward to tell us that they were tuning in to the Holyrood Covid briefings simply because they trusted them more as a means of information about what was happening in the whole of the UK.

NOTHING in a long and successful career as a serious operator at the heart of Government and Scottish public affairs could have prepared her for these days. A perverse kind of musical chairs at the top of government had left her occupying the doomsday seat as the biggest public health crisis since World War Two began to menace Scotland.

“But I had no time to reflect on how this was affecting me and those around me,” she said. “And besides, whatever I was encountering was as nothing compared to those on the front line of our health service who were, quite literally, working around the clock and risking their own health and that of their families to get us all through the pandemic.”

The ongoing public inquiry into the Scottish and UK Governments’ response to the pandemic prevents Freeman from discussing certain aspects of it but she is remarkably candid about other areas.

In 2015 she had decided to run for elected office as an MSP to represent her home constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. “I loved campaigning and canvassing,” she tells me. “I had only wanted to serve the area in which I grew up, just to see if I could make a positive difference. At the age of 63 this wasn’t in any way a career move.”

Within a week she had been made Minister for Social Security. Three years later she’d been promoted to the Health brief, a vast and sprawling area of responsibility that alone eats up a third of Scotland’s entire national budget.

One senior executive, now a member of one of Scotland’s largest health boards, recalls Freeman’s tenure with a mixture of respect and outright admiration. “Very quickly it became obvious to me and my colleagues that this was a woman who knew what she was doing.

“She was rigorous and utterly professional in everything she did. In so many ways it’s an almost impossible job and she didn’t always get it right. But she had a big brain and was willing to listen and sought always to be on top of her brief.”

So what was life like inside the little executive cockpit driving the Scottish Government’s response to Covid? There were a handful of them, led by the First Minister and including Freeman, the National Clinical Director Jason Leitch and other senior Health Directors. They all became household names as their daily afternoon briefings became lifelines for a scared population.

The Health Secretary’s day would start at 6.30am and end at around 9pm. “On the morning drive to Edinburgh I’m reading anything that’s come in overnight and any new research that’s been published.

"You’re getting read-outs from the four Chief Medical Officers' meetings and I’m also getting every single day the updated position on every single item of PPE: how much have we got; how much is on order; are there any worries about the order. We were creating new routes to distribute it; to make sure that social care had PPE; the private; pharmacists, dentists so that they could continue to deliver a service.

“And you’re also picking up on anything that might be happening elsewhere in the UK. So, I might be talking to my counterpart in Northern Ireland or Wales or Hancock in Downing Street.

“At mid-morning there would be a meeting in advance of the media briefing consisting of me and the FM and the Chief Medical Officer, maybe Jason if he’s on that day and a small number of others. Public Health Scotland are obviously there too. And at that point you’re looking at confirmed statistics. Is there any dubiety around them? Public Health Scotland involved too. Then you do the media briefing and then afterwards you’re following up on everything else. You might be taking to health board chief execs, health board chairs.”

She is full of admiration for the way that Nicola Sturgeon conducted herself throughout the health crisis. Scotland’s First Minister has a reputation for circumspection to the point of secrecy in her dealings with close colleagues. Freeman, though, feels that this perception is mistaken – and the First Minister is actually treating them with respect and letting them get on with the job. “It’s a mature and considered approach,” she says.

“I think her view is: ‘I’ve just made you a Government Minister because I believe you can do the job. I’m no’ your mammy; I’m no’ gonnae do the job for you. I’ve got my own job; so could you just get on with it. You’ve got political advisers who are good; you’ve got colleagues and I’m always here’. I much prefer that approach.

“One thing that Nicola said at the start still resonates with me. ‘We’re all learning as we go. But I’m going to treat the public as adults. I’m going to tell them what I know; I’m going to tell them what I don’t know and I’m going to tell them why we decided to do what we did. And that was the standard we set and tried to stick to throughout it all.

“What I didn’t appreciate until maybe a year ago was how much this all meant to people. And how many had built their days around those briefings. Especially the tens of thousands who were being forced to shield owing to complicated patterns of illness.”

TOMORROW: The ordinary people who reached out to us and cared for us. The amateur blogger who became our go-to fact checker. And how Anthony Fauci is helping us prepare for future shocks.