Scottish Government has been warned repeatedly but is in denial and lives are being lost, says Labour leader

By Bill Heaney

Emergency doctors have reported that there have been 231 excess deaths due to delays at accident and emergency departments, according to Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

“Those are 231 people who could have survived if our hospitals were properly resourced,” he told the Scottish Parliament.

He added: “The Royal College of Nursing tells us that its members are overworked. We have even heard stories of nurses going home crying, and many are leaving the profession early. That is because our NHS is 3,500 nurses short.

“On top of that, our A and E waiting times are the worst they have ever been. The First Minister’s response is not to fix the problem, but to tell people that they are the problem and that they should not go to A and E.

“The Scottish Government has been warned repeatedly; it is in denial and lives are being lost. When will the First Minister take personal responsibility and act?”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I take personal responsibility for everything that the Government is responsible for, every single day. I recognise that. I pay tribute and express my gratitude to everyone who works in our national health service.

“Nursing and midwifery staffing in Scotland is currently at a record high. Since the SNP Government has been in office there has been an 11.7 per cent increase in qualified nurses and midwives. The number of qualified nursing and midwifery staff working in our NHS has increased for nine consecutive years.

“We have a higher per head staffing ratio than other parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, we have 8.4 qualified nurses and midwives per 1,000 of the population, compared with just 5.9 per 1,000 in England.

“That is the SNP Government’s record—but, of course, we need to do more because of the current pressure. That is why we are investing in greater recruitment and supporting health boards across the country to recruit more nurses and other professionals into our national health service.

“On what the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said, it published research this week, on which we will engage with the college in order to better understand it. The analysis appears to use research findings from England from four years ago to make extrapolations from Scotland-only data now. We want to understand that in more detail.

“However, that said, everyone recognises the relationship between long waits in A and E that are not clinically justified and increased risk of harm to patients. Nobody can or should deny that, which is why we are investing to try to cut A and E waiting times and to improve flow through our hospitals.

“That brings me to the new guidance that has been issued for A and E. This is where Anas Sarwar cannot quote the Royal College of Emergency Medicine when it suits him and ignore its views when they do not suit him.

“We are not turning anyone away from accident and emergency departments—it is about ensuring that people get the right care in the right place. The vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said that the RCEM supports the guidance and that, in order to ensure that all patients receive the right care, at the right time, in the right place, it will on occasion be appropriate to signpost … some people who have presented to an emergency department—but do not require after an appropriate assessment to be seen there—to another part of the healthcare system.”

She added: “That is appropriate and is a change in guidance that was, I think, made in England some time ago. It is about ensuring that patients get the best care in the right place, which is something that everyone

However, Anas Sarwar said: “We have heard the same excuses week after week. The situation across our NHS is getting worse. Why does Nicola Sturgeon think that she knows better than the professionals on the front line? We have heard the quote from the First Minister, now let me quote Colin Poolman from the Royal College of Nursing. He has said that ‘despite the Scottish Government’s talk about record levels of staffing, these figures show that the shortfall in registered nurses needed to run NHS services has never been higher’.”

The Royal College of Nursing says that there is a shortfall of almost 3,500 nurses, the Labour leader said.

He added: “The First Minister talked about selective quoting of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. I will quote the words of Dr John Thomson directly. He said: ‘“What we are seeing: ambulance handover delays; dangerous crowding; long stays … put patient safety at risk and can lead to harm or avoidable deaths’.

“Nicola Sturgeon wants to pretend that it is a recent problem, but it is a crisis that has been years in the making. Why does she think that she is right, but that the professionals on the front line, who are delivering our high-quality healthcare and are the people whom we applaud as our heroes, are wrong?”

The First Minister hit back: “I do not think that. If Anas Sarwar had listened to what I said, he would have heard me say that we are listening to the front-line professionals. The nurse numbers that I cited are facts: there has been an 11 per cent increase in nurses and midwives since we took office. I went on to say that that is not enough, because the pressure on our health service has increased. We are listening to the people on the front line and we are supporting health boards with additional investment to recruit more staff into the health service in order to deal with the pressure.

“Anas Sarwar said that we are somehow not listening to the people on the front line by—in his words—turning people away from accident and emergency services. That is not the case. We recognise the pressure on accident and emergency services and we recognise the need to ensure that people get the right care in the right place, and we are trying to find the solutions.

“The part of the solution that is encapsulated in the new guidance is supported by the people on the front line. It is supported by the very person whom Anas Sarwar quoted—the vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, John Thomson. He said that the approach is the right thing to do to ensure that patients get ‘the right care, at the right time, in the right place’.

“We absolutely recognise the challenge, but we are listening to those on the front line in coming up with the best and the right solutions.”

However, Mr Sarwar said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric cannot hide the reality. The Scottish National Party has been in government for 14 years. She was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing for four years, and she has been the First Minister for seven years. There must come a point when it cannot be somebody else’s fault.

“Let us look at Nicola Sturgeon’s record. Nicola Sturgeon cut nurse training places, as health secretary. We now have a shortage of 3,500 nurses in our NHS. Nicola Sturgeon has cut hospital beds by almost 1,500 in the past decade, and we are now chronically short of NHS beds. Nicola Sturgeon has been warned for months about the challenges that A and E services face, and people are now dying because of record A and E waiting times.

“Earlier this week, the First Minister described Scotland as ‘a nation in waiting’. She is right: it is waiting on record long NHS treatment lists, waiting for an ambulance, waiting at A and E, and waiting for her to take responsibility. When will Nicola Sturgeon get a grip of the NHS crisis?”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader.

The First Minister: claimed she had a grip on this: “I take responsibility every day. With respect to Anas Sarwar, I note that I have held the positions that I have held for as long as I have only because, on several occasions, I have put before the people of Scotland my record in the ministerial posts that I have held, and the record of the Government, and have been re-elected with the trust of the people of Scotland to face up to these challenges.

“In the years that we have spent in government, there has been an 11 per cent increase in the number of nurses and midwives working in our national health service. We have increased training of nurses; the overall intake for pre-registration nursing and midwifery increased by 5.8 per cent this year.

“That is what we are doing. We recognise the acute challenges in our national health service. Those challenges are shared by health services across the world, largely because of the Covid pandemic. We are bringing forward solutions to support the people who work on the front line and patients throughout the country. That is what the people of Scotland have entrusted us to continue to do.”

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