SARWAR AND STURGEON clash OVER unprecedented nhs situation that is affecting the health and well-being of more than 650,000 Scots

Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

By Bill Heaney

It was a gloves off and jab after jab with little blood drawn at Holyrood today when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon clashed with Labour leader Anas Sarwar over the SNP’s failure to get the NHS back to normal.

Mr Sarwar said: “Almost 10 months ago, the First Minister said that her focus was on getting the NHS back to normal.

“Today, however, almost two years into the pandemic, things are getting worse, not better. Although I accept that omicron has put more pressure on our NHS services, many of the problems that we are facing were avoidable.

“In September, people were told to expect delayed and cancelled operations when the health board was put into code black.

“This week, the health board has gone further, introducing a suspension of many general practitioner services for at least the next four weeks.

“Patients were told that NHS services would be cut except for the ones that, in the health board’s words, it would “never wish to stop”.

“This is an unprecedented situation that is affecting the health and well-being of more than 650,000 Scots.

“Is it not the case that, for people in Lanarkshire, their entire health service has in effect been turned into an emergency-only service?”

Ms Sturgeon denied this was the case. She told MSPs: “Let me reflect on Anas Sarwar’s first point, which is that, 10 months ago, I stood here and accepted that that would be the case and said that we were focusing, at that point, on getting the NHS back to normal and back on track.

“Ten months ago—if my memory serves me correctly—we had not had the delta variant, nor, of course, had we had the omicron variant. This pandemic has dealt us two significant additional blows since that time, 10 months ago.”

The First Minister added: “Anas Sarwar says that it was after delta. That may or may not be the case, but what I am saying—which any reasonable person who is listening to this would accept—is that the pandemic has continued to deal us blows that we were not necessarily anticipating.

“Yes, that means that our NHS is still struggling with the weight of Covid in a way that we all hoped would not be the case by now. However, every single day, our NHS boards and those who work in the NHS are undertaking the task magnificently.

“NHS Lanarkshire has operationalised level 2 of its general practitioner escalation framework. That is not the most serious level—there are levels 0, 1, 2 and 3. The health board has said that level 2 is initially for a four-week period, but we have asked it to review that weekly and to report to the Scottish Government on the status of that.

“The health board previously had to do that at an earlier stage of the pandemic, in 2020. That ensures that, given the staff absences that are being experienced right now, the health board can continue to focus on the patients who most need care.

“None of us wants to be in this position. We hope that we will be out of it sooner rather than later, but that involves all of us continuing to take the responsible action to get Covid under control so that we can get our NHS fully back to normal.”

Anas Sarwar said: The First Minister says that what I said about emergency-only services is not the case. However, the previous guidance did not include primary care. That is now included, and the board has said that it is now essentially protecting only what it calls its “never” services.

“It is also important to note that that was after delta, as the First Minister said, so we cannot say that it is all due to omicron. NHS Lanarkshire was warning of pressure last July, and code black was put in place in October. That was long before omicron arrived in the United Kingdom.

“By allowing the situation in NHS Lanarkshire to reach crisis levels, the First Minister has let down patients and staff who believed her when she said that a recovery plan was in place.

“Across Scotland, more than 650,000 people are now languishing on NHS waiting lists, and 60,000 have been on a waiting list for more than a year. In one month alone, more than 1,600 operations were cancelled just hours before they were due to happen. The number of people and the length of time that they are waiting keep going up.

“The First Minister promised a recovery and a catch-up plan. Should recovery not mean that things are getting better rather than worse? Should catch-up not mean that waiting lists are coming down rather than mounting up?”

Ms Styurgeon came back off the ropes with this response: “First—and I say this not to be pedantic, but because it is a really important part of the context—Anas Sarwar, in his first question—as, I think, the Official Report will bear out—referred to something that I said 10 months ago and then tried to say that that was somehow after delta. Delta was identified as a variant of concern in, I think, April or May of last year.

“Since delta, which caused significant additional disruption to the health service and society, we have, of course, had omicron, and we have been dealing with that. None of us wants to be in this position, but any reasonable person would realise that that has seriously frustrated the attempts on the part of the NHS, just as it has frustrated attempts across wider society, to get back to normal. That is the context that we are dealing with.

“However, at the start of the pandemic, the GP escalation framework was also put in place, which goes from level 0 to level 3. NHS Lanarkshire is currently at level 2, which means that practices may need to request reduced access to some services in order to focus on the most seriously ill patients. That level has been put in place in Lanarkshire for a short period, and we have asked for it to be reviewed weekly.

“On waiting times more generally, we are focusing as much as possible on supporting boards to recover the position in terms of backlogs and waiting times, but key to doing that is reducing the pressure on boards and in hospitals that is being caused by Covid.

“Hopefully, over the next few weeks, as we start to see the omicron position ease, that will happen and those recovery efforts will escalate and accelerate.

“This is a really difficult position for the NHS, but it is one that we need to support it through. The sooner that we get Covid back under control, the sooner those efforts can step up again.”

Anas Sarwar replied: “Ten months ago was the first time that the First Minister said that we would get the NHS back to normal, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care [Humza Yousaf] published the catch-up plan after the election in May, which was also after delta.

“What patients expect, and what it is reasonable to expect after almost two years of the pandemic, is a return to normal NHS services—access to basic health services—so that we can protect people’s lives and livelihoods.

“Nicola Sturgeon wants to pretend that all the problems in the NHS are because of the pandemic.

“However, she has been in Government for 14 years and has been the First Minister for seven years. The NHS was under-resourced and undervalued by the Government and we had a workforce crisis before the pandemic.

“There were more than 3,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies. Let us not forget that Nicola Sturgeon, as health secretary, cut the number of training places. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said that we are at least 1,000 beds short in the NHS. The Government cut double that number and—staggeringly—450,000 of our fellow Scots were on NHS waiting lists even before the pandemic.

“Patients are suffering and staff are burnt out. Is it not the case that we need a plan for recovery not just from Covid but from 14 years of this Scottish National Party Government?”

The First Minister responded: “The people of Scotland had the opportunity to make that choice less than a year ago, and they recorded a verdict on that.

“On the impact of the pandemic, I am not suggesting for a second that all the challenges that the national health service faces are down to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the NHS was dealing with changing demographics and the impact of technology, all of which was putting pressure on the NHS. We stood here and had exchanges on that at the time.

“However, Anas Sarwar seems to be trying to deny the significant effect that Covid has had—and continues to have—on the NHS. Over the most recent period, as the NHS has been dealing with omicron, there has been a 65 per cent increase in Covid-related staff absences. That is the kind of pressure that the NHS is dealing with. We need to get that under control, bring the NHS and the country out of the pandemic and get back to dealing with other challenges.

“The SNP Government has put in place the solid foundations to deal with those challenges. Health spending is at a record high level in Scotland right now. NHS staffing is at a record high, and, since the SNP Government came into office, NHS staffing has increased by 27,000 whole-time-equivalent staff members. We have put in place the foundations.

“We need to get through Covid and then we will support our NHS to recover in full and continue to deliver the services that patients across Scotland need and deserve.”

One comment

  1. So not all of the problems are to do with the pandemic.

    In fact say Sturgeon, before the pandemic it was demographics and changing technology that was causing the backlog

    Oh really First Minister. The backlog of people waiting for operations was largely already existing. Does that mean the SNP under your watch First Minister was not properly resourcing the NHS?

    Seems that it does and now the Labour Party are roasting you for the failed performance. Demographics and technology my arse FM. You’re in the same tall stories boat as your sidekick soul mate Boris Johnson. But we’ll wait for the Sue Gray inquiry – eh.

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