By Bill Heaney

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sustained serious political injuries in the Scottish Parliament today over the crippled state of the country’s ambulance service.

Tory leader Douglas Ross, a football referee and linesman in civilian life,  did the initial damage when he said: “It has been reported today that the average wait for an ambulance following a 999 call is six hours. Does the First Minister not find that shocking and unacceptable?”

She didn’t admit that however and was as accepting of this as a football reporter on a Scottish tabloid might be of the national team failing to beat England in the World Cup qualifiers.

There were a million and one reasons why this might be happening, but Ms Sturgeon was only prepared to accept one – the Covid pandemic.

She said: “I do not find it acceptable that anyone waits longer than they should for an ambulance. We know that the pressure that the Scottish Ambulance Service is under at the moment is because of many of the other pressures on our national health service that have been caused and, in some respects, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We are working very closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service to resolve the issue. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care [Humza Yousaf] spoke to the chief executive of the Ambulance Service this morning. Next month, 90 additional technicians will come into employment by the service.

“We are also funding the health service. We bolstered investment by £10.5 million last year, and an additional £20 million has been invested this year.”

If only the Scottish football team could call on the services of so many talented personnel and had that many millions of pounds in the SFA safe, but there will be no equivalent of  Ronaldo joining the NHS.

She told the chamber: “Although any individual wait is unacceptable, and we must work to resolve that, it is worth bearing it in mind that despite all the challenges, and despite the fact that our Ambulance Service serves some of the most rural areas in the United Kingdom, during 2020-21 our crews responded to more than 70 per cent of the highest-priority calls in less than 10 minutes, and to more than 99 per cent in less than 30 minutes.

“We will continue supporting our Ambulance Service through this challenging period—just as we continue to support the entire national health service.”

Her Nippiness failed to mention the football team even once which gave Mr Ross the opportunity to slip past her out-stretched tongue and fire off another shot past the SNP defence.

He said: “People are dialling 999 and are asking for an ambulance. On average, they are waiting six hours, not 10 minutes. The First Minister tries to say that that is because of the pandemic. Our ambulance staff and technicians have done fantastic work during the pandemic and before it, but the problems began long before Covid-19.

“In 2018, a Government report found that only 20 per cent of ambulance crew members thought that there were enough staff. A 2019 staff survey showed that demand for ambulance services had increased far beyond the available resources.

“Almost half of paramedics who were surveyed in 2019 said that they often thought about leaving the service. Just yesterday, the trade union Unite’s convener at the Scottish Ambulance Service said: ‘Serious adverse events from the ambulance service have been on an upwards trajectory since the start of the year. They are through the roof.’ That all adds up to a service that was in crisis well before Covid hit.” 

The First Minister said ambulance problems were nationwide and that 296 additional ambulance staff are currently being recruited to the service.

The metaphorical magic sponge then came into play – “I will not stand here and suggest that it is in any way acceptable for anyone to wait too long for an ambulance.

“In the week up to 7 September, which is the week for which we have the most recent figures, the Scottish Ambulance Service responded to 10,435 emergency incidents, which was more than in the previous week.

“The median national response time in that week for all calls about immediate life-threatening need was nine minutes and three seconds. That is slightly higher than we want it to be; the target is seven minutes.

“The Ambulance Service is working hard under incredibly challenging circumstances. My job, and that of the health secretary, is to support them with funding and in other ways, to ensure that they can meet the challenges for the sake of all patients across Scotland, who deserve timely responses from the Scottish Ambulance Service.”

Mr Ross considered this a parliamentary form of simulation and reached for a metaphorical yellow card.

He said: “People who are listening at home will be wondering about that time of seven minutes. To have an ambulance come in seven minutes would be great for people who are waiting for hours, often in agony.”

Tory leader Douglas Ross in slanging match with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

All over Scotland, people are waiting for ambulances, he said, and he gave examples of this including one from a Dunbartonshire care home where a resident had symptoms of stroke and phoned for an ambulance at 2.30 pm.

Mr Ross said: “They were not picked up until 4.45 am, more than 14 hours later.”

At this juncture, spectators were phoning BET365 to see what the odds were on Nicola being stretchered off, but then they remembered there was little chance of obtaining an ambulance to take her to hospital.

Ms Sturgeon was struggling for answers and at this point she asked to replace the ball and retake the earlier free kick – “for the most urgent calls in the most recent week [the response time]  was just over nine minutes. That is not good enough, because it should be within seven minutes.

“For amber calls, the median time was 21 minutes 26 seconds. Again, that is slightly above the target. There is work to be done here, but that is exactly why we are making the investment. We are supporting recruitment of additional paramedics and technicians to bring waiting times down again.

“Perhaps even more important to note is that some of the pressure on the Ambulance Service comes from pressures elsewhere in the health service, which is why the NHS recovery plan and the investment that supports it are so important. We will continue to focus on the service with health boards—including the Scottish Ambulance Service—every day to address the very serious issues.”

It sounded much like coach Steve Clarke saying that Scotland had failed this time but that they might have a team good enough to do the job down the line around 2030.

Mr Ross said: “I agree with the First Minister: this is not good enough. The Government has allowed the long-term issues to spiral into a crisis. The knock-on problems are bringing our NHS to its knees and are putting lives at risk, and it is only going to get worse this winter.

“People cannot see a general practitioner in person. They call for an ambulance, but it is delayed for hours. When they reach A and E, they find that waiting times are at their worst levels since records began.

“Unite the union said this week that ambulances were parked outside hospitals for seven hours, missing three other 999 calls while they waited. However, this week’s programme for government set out nothing—no new money for the Scottish Ambulance Service. Will the First Minister accept that there is a crisis? Will she tell us what she is going to do about it now, before lives are lost?”

In an after the mismatch interview, Nicola said: “  I think that most people understand that exceptionally difficult circumstances have prevailed over the past 18 months, and they understand the difficulties that all Governments and health services are having as we try to recover.

“That is why we are making investment, why we have the recovery plan and why we will continue—every single day—to support our health service and everybody who works in it to recover and to get the NHS fully back on track.”

I believe we can take it from this that there will be no reeovery for the ambulance service in the near future just as there will be no Jules Rimet trophy heading Scotland’s way at the close of the World Cup.

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