By Bill Heaney

Labour leader Anas Sarwar landed a heavy blow on Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament today.

He told MSPs: “I know that everyone in the chamber agrees that, in the past 18 months, our national health service staff have performed remarkably under pressure.

“Even before the pandemic, they were undervalued, underresourced and overworked. This week, we have seen the number of people on NHS waiting lists rise to more than 600,000. Does the First Minister agree that this is a humiliation for the SNP and a tragedy for the tens of thousands of patients languishing on ever lengthening lists?”

The First Minister replied: “It is the responsibility of the Government to support the NHS and to help NHS staff get through what is an extremely challenging situation for countries across the world. Most people recognise that we are in a global pandemic that has had a significant impact on our NHS.

“Anas Sarwar is right to say that there were challenges in our NHS before Covid, but as we can see from the waiting times improvement plan that was in place then, waiting times were starting to be reduced through the investment that we had made.

Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

“We obviously all know the impact that Covid has had on the NHS. This year’s recovery plan is backed by £1 billion of additional investment, and looks to build capacity in our NHS in relation to in-patients and day cases—a 10 per cent increase in capacity over five years, with a 20 per cent increase for in-patients and a 10 per cent increase for out-patients over the five-year period.

“The plan also sets out reforms to the way in which healthcare is delivered. Just last week, I visited the Golden Jubilee national hospital [in West Dunbartonshire] to look at some innovations in robotic procedures and at changes to how diagnostic operations are done.

“We support the NHS through record increased funding, support for staff and the biggest agenda for change pay rise in the history of devolution—the largest pay rise across the United Kingdom—to ensure that we are delivering for patients as we come out of, and recover from, Covid.”

However, Anas Sarwar said: “I note that the First Minister did not answer the question. The reason why she did not is that I was actually quoting her from 2003. All I did was replace the word Labour with SNP. However, the difference is that in 2003 Nicola Sturgeon said that a list of over 84,000 people was a humiliation. We are talking today about a list of more than 600,000, compared to 84,000 then.

“I know that Nicola Sturgeon says that the situation is because of the pandemic, but let us look at the stats before the pandemic: 450,000 people were languishing on NHS waiting lists before the pandemic even began—every one of them an anxious human being with a worried family. That is a humiliation.

“The long lists mean that more complicated cases present at accident and emergency. This month had the worst A and E waiting times since records began: 24,000 of our fellow citizens waited more than four hours, 4,000 waited more than eight hours and almost 1,000 fellow citizens waited more than 12 hours, while ambulances queued outside hospitals. If the First Minister was looking those 24,000 patients and the 6,000 patients on waiting lists in the eye, what would she say to them?

The First Minister, who looked taken aback, said: “I would say that it is my responsibility to support the national health service to recover from a global pandemic. The difference between now and 2003 is not the difference that Anas Sarwar tried to suggest, but is a global pandemic that has placed significant pressure on our national health service. Before the pandemic, the difference was the changing demographic of our country. Every nation across the UK is grappling with that.

“That is why the Scottish Government has ensured record investment in the national health service—which would not have happened had Labour stayed in government—record staff numbers in our NHS and a recovery plan that targets £1 billion at building the capacity of our NHS.

“I would say to patients that in opposition—I know, because I have been there—it is easy to come up with slogans, but in Government the responsibility is to deliver investment to support staff and to make changes for patients. That is exactly what we will continue to do.

But Anas Sarwar told parliament: “The problem the First Minister has is that she accepts that she relied on slogans in opposition and has kept on relying on slogans while she has been in government. That is the problem for people across the country. The First Minister cannot ignore the fact that the figure was 450,000 before the pandemic—and she thought that 84,000 was a humiliation in 2003.

“Doctors, nurses and patients agree that the NHS is in crisis. We need more than the thin recovery plan that has been produced by the Government, which is more of a slogan and a public relations exercise than a genuine effort to rebuild our NHS.

“Let us look at what the experts say. The BMA called the recovery plan “unrealistic”. The nurses have called the workforce planning “woefully poor”. The recovery plan means that we will not meet the 62-day cancer standard for another five years—that is on top of its not having been met for the past nine years. That will mean that people are diagnosed late, that their treatment will start late and that lives will be lost, as a result.

“Will the First Minister listen to what the professionals on the front line and patients are telling her? Will she recognise that the Government plan is not good enough and is not working? With the peak pressures of winter on their way, will she act before it is too late?”

However, Nicola Sturgeon, told him: “We continue to support the plan with £1 billion of investment and 1,500 additional staff for the national treatment centres. We will continue to support the NHS in that way. If Anas Sarwar wants to come forward in the forthcoming budget process and point to where he thinks we should take extra money from to add to that, I would be very happy to listen. However, he has to do that with responsibility and not in a way that suggests that he can simply conjure money out of nowhere.

“We have a big responsibility to get waiting times back on track. Incidentally, one of the other differences between now and 2003 is that our waiting times targets are so much more ambitious than they were under Labour because we are delivering more for patients.”

She added: “No one in the Government underplays the seriousness of the situation that we face right now or how difficult the challenges ahead are for all of society—the NHS in particular. However, it is only a matter of months since the Scottish people had the opportunity to look at all that and to make a choice about whom they trust and have confidence in to lead the country through those challenges. The public chose this Government.

“We take that responsibility seriously every day, as we continue to navigate the country through the crisis and into recovery. We dedicate ourselves to that responsibility today and every day that we are in office.”

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