HEALTH: Claim that NHS bed numbers have reduced by 1200 under SNP is Mostly True

Claim that NHS bed numbers have reduced by 1200 under SNP is Mostly True

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project GERS

The strain Scotland’s NHS is facing as the Covid-19 pandemic continues has been a significant topic of debate recently, with ambulance capacity issues, increased waiting times in A and E, and rising hospital admissions making news.

Speaking at Holyrood, Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie, pictured right,  cited John Thomson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Scotland, who suggested Scotland required 1,000 more hospital beds to relieve some of the pressure on the NHS. Baillie went on to claim that under the SNP’s government, bed numbers had reduced by more than that amount. The Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it Mostly True.


Hospital bed numbers are regularly reported as an example of the resources available to the NHS.

Annual figures on the number of hospital beds are released by Public Health Scotland. The latest figures available cover the year up to 31 March 2020, eight days after Scotland’s national Covid-19 lockdown came into force.

Available beds are the number of beds which are staffed and ready to take incoming patients.

This number has reduced over the past decade. In 2019-20, there were 13,156 available beds across NHS Scotland. This is a slight increase on the previous year but 1,189 less than ten years ago when figures in 2010-11 showed there were 14,345 available beds.

Wider figures for all specialties are also held. These also show a broad decline in the number of available beds from 24,795 in 2010-11 to 20,614 in 2019-20.

Data on acute specialties beds in 2020-21 was released soon after this fact check was published. It showed a further reduction in bed capacity to 12,869. Jackie Baillie’s claim was made before these figures were published.

So why are there fewer beds available than ten years ago?

According to Public Health Scotland, the number of beds has reduced due to advances in medical treatment leading to shorter stays in hospital, as well as a move towards treatment in so-called “ambulatory settings”, which means care and treatment given without requiring admission to hospital.

The data shows that bed numbers have declined consistently over the last 20 years.

Another way to measure how hospital bed capacity is dealing with patient numbers is the percentage occupancy. This tells us how many of the beds are filled on average at any time. The percentage occupancy across acute specialties in 2019-20 was 86.7 per cent. This has gradually increased from 84.2 per cent occupancy in 2010-11.

However this has been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Jackie Baillie MSP’s claim that 1,200 beds had been cut from the NHS in the last ten years is based on accurate figures. The latest data shows there are just under 1,200 fewer acute specialties beds than there were in 2011-12.

However, these statistics mostly predate the Covid-19 pandemic, when capacity and occupancy increased across NHS Scotland. The number of available beds had been consistently reducing before the pandemic as healthcare moved away from inpatient procedures and medical advances made hospital stays shorter.

Mostly True

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to, email us at or join our Facebook group.

In the wake of these Ferret revelations, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton has today accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of making “wildly unrealistic” claims about NHS capacity as new figures revealed that since she became First Minister the number of available hospital beds has fallen by 7%.

New figures from Public Health Scotland reveal that the average number of available staffed beds for acute specialties in Scotland in 2020/21 was 12,869. This is a 2.5% decrease from 13,204 in 2019/20 and a 6.9% decrease from 13,823 in 2015/16.

Alex Cole-Hamilton said:  “Year after year, fewer and fewer beds are available in our NHS. In fact Nicola Sturgeon has presided over a 7% drop since she took over as First Minister. 

“Nicola Sturgeon claims that the Scottish Government are going to increase NHS activity by 10%. That is wildly unrealistic given the meagre resources they are making available to the NHS and the figures we are seeing today.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have set out a series of practical proposals to help get the NHS back on its feet, by giving staff a greater say over which innovations pioneered during the pandemic should be maintained and ensuring that our national health service has the support and resources it needs to flourish.”

Figures produced by Jackie Baillie today (Wednesday) are as follows:

Scotland lost more than 300 hospital beds during the pandemic.

From 2019/20 to 2020/21 the number of acute beds in Scotland fell by 335, taking the total cut since 2011/12 to 1,358.

Jackie Baillie said: “It simply beggars belief to see beds being cut at this crucial time.

“Ambulances are queued down the street, people are waiting months for vital surgery, and consultants are crying out for more beds.“It is dangerously negligent for the SNP to be cutting capacity instead of ramping it up.

“However long their list of excuses might be, the truth is our NHS is in crisis because of the SNP’s mismanagement.

“Lives are on the line. We urgently need a real plan to restore our NHS before winter hits.”

Beds for financial years – average available staffed beds, all acute specialities

Year 2011/12 2019/20 2020/21 Annual Change Change v 2011/12
NHS Scotland 14,227 13,204 12,869 335 1,358



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