My first meeting with Jeane Freeman – at a Burns Supper in Glasgow in 2005 – didn’t begin well. The right-wing newspaper for which I then worked had carried a story the previous week with the heading “Jack McConnell’s Lesbian Love Triangle”. Freeman and her partner were both senior civil servants in Scotland’s Labour administration and the paper felt they were thus fair game for taking at a tilt at a lefty government.

The days when such a heading would have been considered acceptable by any media outlet have long since gone but it remains to Freeman’s eternal credit that she felt able to forgive, if not forget. Yet, traces of some wretched, old habits remain in Scottish public life.

Freeman says: “Look, when you stand for election and accept the responsibilities that come with ministerial office you accept that you’ll be scrutinised and criticised and that some of it will be unfair. And, to be honest, I’d been given a fairly easy ride when I was Secretary for Social Security. People liked what we were doing and the way we were going about it, mainly by seeking broad consensus beyond party lines to future-proof it from any subsequent interference.

“But the health brief was a different matter entirely. Intellectually, you kind of sense that it’s coming down the pipe, but nothing really prepares you for the reality of it. No matter what and no matter who, the health job is one of the hardest jobs in any government. It’s only right that it’s scrutinised and analysed much more closely, but what isn’t right is when it gets personal and you get objectified.”

Long before she’d become a government advisor, Freeman had gained a formidable track record in delivering ground-breaking social initiatives. She was founder and CEO of Apex Scotland, a remarkable organisation which, for 30 years, has worked with people with criminal convictions, enabling them to gain the skills and training to gain employment and break damaging patterns of behaviour. Later she would become a founding member of the Women for Independence group which brought many women who had previously been disengaged into political activism.

None of this though, spared her from a slew of infantile comment about her appearance. She says: “Making disparaging remarks about my looks as an indicator of whether I can be a good health secretary, or not, is outrageous. And women do get it much more than men. None of my male predecessors could ever have been mistaken for George Clooney, but no one ever commented on their looks or appearance.

“They are substituting argument and debate for insult and it takes us nowhere. And, yes, it hurts and it hurts those who love you. At times I thought of my great nieces and great nephew who are super-proud of their auntie and I’m thinking, ‘they’re going to think politics is horrible and I don’t want them to think that. I want them to be politically engaged.

“Young people so need to be engaged perhaps more now than at any other time. But they’re looking at their auntie who’s getting pelters for the lines in her face and the size of her bum and what she’s wearing: it’s preposterous. And they must be thinking, ‘well, I’m not doing that’. So, there’s a real democratic issue in this. Women’s voices need to be heard. That’s fundamental. 

“Elected politics is all about the voter handing you their power in trust for a set period of time, so you need them to be engaged enough to decide whether it’s you they’re going to hand that power to. But if that world looks like a cesspit then why would they bother? And that’s frighteningly dangerous because it leaves the field open to extremists and darker forces.”

And, while she was gratified about how opposition politicians and the press conducted themselves during the pandemic, some tribal instincts were still at play. Perhaps the most egregious example came when the political commentator, Angela Haggerty – a single mum of a new-born baby who was shielding during the pandemic – took to Twitter to highlight some concerns about food-delivery provision. Freeman took up her case, but mainly as a means to ironing out wrinkles in the system for others in similar situations.

Her intervention led to Ruth Davidson, then the Scottish Tory leader, making cheap publicity from mocking the situation, suggesting that Freeman had only acted because Haggerty was a well-known supporter of independence.

“That situation was deliberately misunderstood.

“Some people put a spin on it for nefarious reasons. I didn’t know Angela, aside from her being a shielding, new, single mother, living alone and cut off. Many others were in the same situation. It was important for me to get the message to them that I was listening and would do what I could to address any issues.”

Freeman stepped away from frontline politics last year to take up a part-time post at Glasgow University as Ambassador for Community Engagement, Public Health and Innovation for the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences. This has inspired a series of Future Shock seminars considering how civic Scotland can arm itself and become more resilient to future global health and economic crises.

Last month she interviewed Anthony Fauci, the globally renowned US scientist and immunologist whose thankless job it was to convince Donald Trump, the world’s most famous Covid-denier, that the pandemic was real.

“Doctor Fauci said something that resonated powerfully with me about learning lessons from global shocks,” says Freeman. “He said, ‘At the start of March 2020 we didn’t believe there could be asymptomatic transmission from Covid because no other virus has ever done that. All the evidence pointed to this. But by the end of March it was a case of, hell – this one’s different. What we had said at the beginning of March was correct based on what we knew and what we said at the end of March was also right based on what we knew. Science is a self-correcting process.’”

The Future Shock series could yet provide the key to dealing with the catastrophes to come by future-proofing services and policies in the present. It also seeks to explore the tension that inevitably occurs when emergency powers butt up against personal rights and freedoms. “History tells us,” says Freeman “that civic freedoms, once lost, can be very difficult to reinstate.

“One positive outcome happened, of necessity, during the first year of Covid. We didn’t have time for 42 committees having 42 meetings to decide something and so decision-making was devolved to the front line… and it worked. I said to our health boards: ‘You have committees that haven’t operated in the last year and nothing bad happened, so why would you set them back up again? If you’ve devolved decision-making to the consultants, to the janitors, to the procurement specialists, to the nursing staff and it worked then let’s keep it. Why wouldn’t you?

“It means these front-line specialists immediately feel more fulfilled and valued. And they really know what they’re doing: they don’t take risks; they’re always looking for value for money; and their focus is always on the patient. What more do you want or need?

“We need to devolve decision-making in health much more. Government’s job is to enable. No health secretary can tell a super-clever cardiologist, or a really good head of housekeeping, how to do their jobs.

“Our job is to ensure there’s the right training and the right numbers of people coming through in the right skill-sets and specialisms. People are thus valued and the local structure enables them and doesn’t hold them back. And, as medicine constantly evolves, there’s another question: do we really need as many health boards as we currently have in a country of five million people?”

She recounts the tale of the young Scottish student blogger, John the Travelling Tabby, whose coronavirus tracker across the UK produced a remarkably accurate and sharp picture of the evolving pandemic.

“I checked in with his blog every day just in case he’d spotted any anomalies Public Health Scotland might have missed. He was my go-to. He was fantastic. Nicola met him and I messaged him privately to thank him. He’s a wee star and, to my knowledge, he was never wrong.”

Freeman adds: “Not only was he really good at crunching the numbers, he was great at communicating them to people who aren’t good at numbers. That is the essence of public service.”