If there was a list of the world’s most undesirable jobs, would the role of a government health secretary during a global pandemic be near the top?
There is no one better placed to answer that question than Jeane Freeman, who was appointed as the cabinet secretary for health and sport in 2018.
She was promoted following a reshuffle which saw predecessor, Shona Robison, set aside after a series of controversies, including the NHS Tayside financial crisis and the decapitation of an unborn child at Ninewells Hospital.
Born to a working-class and Labour-supporting family in 1953, Ms Freeman said her father was her hero.
She said: “My dad would talk about watching out for each other but if others beside you were not getting the same chances, then it is all pointless.”
Ms Freeman was a Labour Party member through the 1980s and 1990s but resigned when the Labour government removed the student grant.
‘Those regrets will live with me’
She said: “Had it not been available to me, I would not have been able to leave nursing and acquire my degree.”
During her tenure as health secretary, more recently Ms Freeman has been criticised for deaths at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, the delayed opening of the new Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh, and her response to pronounced death rates in care homes across Scotland – but she treats none of these incidents with complacency.
On the contrary, she said: “With respect to the loss of life in care homes, those regrets will live with me from now on.”
Ms Freeman added: “The public have a right to know and to scrutinise what has happened but what is unfair is the implication that we (the Scottish Government) do not care or wilfully put the lives of people at risk.
“The tough element of living your political beliefs is there are very few binary choices and it is always a balance of risk.”
She also said: “The key is to be honest about past experiences and consider carefully how to respond to show you have learned lessons.”
For Jeane Freeman, social security in Scotland was her main focus before taking on her current role.
Before handling the health brief, Ms Freeman served as minister for social security, having been invited by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to take on the role just days after her election.
It was in that role where Ms Freeman and I first met in 2016 and it is here that she considers her greatest achievement.
She said: “It was a real privilege to help lay the foundations for a social security service, and I use the word service because we are about dignity and respect and I was immensely proud to do that.”
Ms Freeman, who previously served as a special adviser to the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, said it was in that role she realised the merits of Scottish independence.
She added: “I believe Scotland already behaves as if it is an independent nation and I believe in my lifetime we will be an independent nation.”