Anas Sarwar and Nicola Sturgeon clashed at First Minister’s Questions.

By Bill Heaney

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh today that devolution itself is not enough and that she could not cope with the devolved NHS’s current crisis without the help of Westminster.

Scotland may not want Westminster – but it wants – and sorely needs – its money. More, much more of its money.

She told Holyrood’s Labour leader Anas Sarwar: “We will continue to do everything that we can in terms of the management of our NHS, but the fact of the matter is that we need more funding for our national health service and that can only come from decisions that are taken at Westminster.

Mr Sarwar told MSPs: “This Government has no grip on the national health service crisis. Staff are being asked to do the impossible and patients are being asked to accept the unacceptable.”

He gave an example of an 81-year-old woman with who fell at home and was in extreme pain. Due to her condition, she was told that she would need to be transported to hospital in an ambulance. That was at 10.15 in the morning.

At 11 o’clock that night—13 hours later—the woman was still waiting in pain. The emergency operator, who was in tears, said that they could not even guarantee an ambulance by the next morning.

The following day, her husband gave up waiting for an ambulance and, in desperation, took her to hospital himself. She was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis.

“Why did this woman have to wait in pain for nearly 24 hours for an ambulance that never turned up?”

The First Minister told him: “Nobody should wait that length of time for an ambulance, and I will not say otherwise.

“As we do with accident and emergency and the NHS overall, this Government continues to focus on supporting our NHS through these difficult times so that it can recover from the impact of the pandemic and get back to delivering the level of service that all patients have a right to expect.

“Looking specifically at the Ambulance Service, it, like A and E, is dealing with significant pressures, but its staffing under this Government is up by 67.3 per cent. The number of paramedics is up by almost 40 per cent and ambulance technicians are up by more than 60 per cent.

“This year, we have allocated additional funding of £45 million over the Ambulance Service’s baseline funding to support workforce growth and service improvement. Our ambulances are saving more critically unwell patients than ever before, and they are diverting cases away from accident and emergency.

Although, of course, an experience like that is not acceptable, and other patients will be having experiences like that right now, the fact is that the vast majority of people who rely on our Ambulance Service, or on any part of the NHS, get an extraordinarily good service from those who work in our national health service.

“The duty of me and my Government is to ensure, through investment and other interventions, that we are supporting those workers every step of the way. It is not easy. It is not easy for any Government right now, particularly in light of the economic circumstances, but each and every single day we will not shy away from that duty.”

Anas Sarwar was not impressed: “Week after week, year after year, the First Minister comes and tells people that it is unacceptable, and then expects people to accept the unacceptable, with devastating consequences across the country. Change the script, First Minister!”

He said this woman’s experience was not an isolated one.

He added: “One reason that ambulances are not available is that they are queuing outside A and E, waiting to drop off patients—in some cases for hours. Last week, I highlighted the hidden waits at assessment units; this week, it is patients waiting hours in ambulances just to get through the doors of the hospital.

“In the past month, more than 2,700 ambulances across Scotland waited at least an hour and 50 minutes to drop off their patients.

Local hospitals – ambulances are queued up at accident and emergency departments.

“In just one month at one hospital—the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow—218 ambulances waited more than three hours. These are ambulances and paramedics that should be out on the road supporting patients, but are instead forced to wait hours outside A and E.

“Last year, I asked the Government to support calls from paramedics and ambulance drivers for a 15-minute turnaround time at A and E, with a maximum wait of 30 minutes. Why is the Government not listening to the paramedics and ambulance drivers? Why are things getting worse, even before we reach the peak winter challenges?”

The feisty First Minister hit back: “First, I will not stop what this Government is doing to support our national health service. Government, at the best of times—and these are not the best of times—is hard. It is more complicated than simple soundbites or setting targets; we have to do the work in order to achieve them.

“That means supporting our national health service and those who work in it with the investment and the wider support that they need. We will continue to take all of those steps. I have narrated the increase in the number of people who are working in our Ambulance Service and the additional investment that we are putting into the Ambulance Service to ensure that we can see that improvement.

“Anas Sarwar is right that these issues are all interconnected, so we need to invest in the wider health service in order to improve performance of the Ambulance Service. No, I will not stop saying that we are doing these things, because they are the necessary steps that any Government would need to take to support our NHS in these tough times.

“Of course, management of the NHS is our responsibility and nobody else’s. However, our NHS is not immune from wider economic and budgetary decisions that, unfortunately, are outwith the hands of this Government. I wish that we could invest much, much more in our national health service.

“I agree very much with the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who recognises that, although it is his responsibility to manage the health service in Wales, that has been impacted by the decisions of the Tories at Westminster.

“He can recognise that, so I am left wondering why Anas Sarwar, instead of making sure that people understand the impact of Tory decisions, wants to pretend that it does not exist.”

But Anas Sarwar told her: “I will never shy away from attacking the Tories for their decisions, but this Government needs to recognise its responsibility for the decisions that it makes and the impact that they have. There is always somebody else to blame; it is always somebody else’s fault. It is the same old soundbites and the same old script from this tired First Minister.

“She does not want to listen to me, so maybe she should listen to the words of an ambulance driver:  ‘Waiting times at the Queen Elizabeth and elsewhere are not a post pandemic issue, we have been raising this for as long as I have been in the service but sadly the times are getting even longer, patients are getting sicker, and it’s happening in all seasons now, not only in the winter months.’

“It has got so bad that ambulance workers have voted this week for strike action, not just because of pay but because they feel that they have been undervalued and under-resourced for years—but this Government is in denial.

“There are growing queues for treatment at A and E departments, ambulances off the road for hours while trying to drop off patients and people waiting in pain for help to come.

“All of that is before we have even reached the worst of winter. Lives are being lost as a result, and now the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care says that it will take another five years to fix the problem—a problem that has been 15 years in the making.

“After 15 years of Scottish National Party Government, why should patients in Scotland have to wait a minute longer?”

Nicol Sturgeon replied: “I will always listen to those who work in our NHS, and listen very carefully because they are the experts on the situation. However, I will not insult their intelligence by pretending that the issues are easy to resolve. We will continue to support people on the front line of our national health service, with record investment supporting record recruitment into our national health service and supporting the redesign of our NHS to make sure that patients get the treatment that they need, when and where they need it. That is in the interests of those who work in our national health service, as well.

“Of course, we will continue to do everything that we possibly can to reward those who work in the NHS to the fullest possible extent. That is why the pay offer that has been made to agenda for change staff is, in Scotland, an average 7 per cent compared with 4.5 per cent in England and, indeed, in Wales, where Labour is in government. We take those responsibilities extremely seriously, every single day—every minute of every single day—but the fact of the matter is that the pressures on our national health service are not divorced from wider budgetary issues.

“The Welsh Labour health minister said recently that the NHS in Wales next year would be hell on earth without additional funding from the United Kingdom Government. She said that the Welsh Government faces a ‘real nightmare’ in running the NHS next year unless the UK Government steps up with additional funding.

“How come it is the case that Labour in Wales can recognise that reality, but Labour in Scotland is clearly so thirled to defending Tories that they are blind to that reality?

“We will continue to do everything that we can in terms of the management of our national health service, but the fact of the matter is that we need more funding for our NHS and that can only come from decisions that are taken at Westminster.”

One comment

  1. They keep saying they don’t do individual cases, yet here we are again. A lady who had a car and driver waiting for ambulance. Yet it took less than two minutes for Christie Ward staff to get an ambulance when they want inpatients for Christie Ward despite them not wanting “treatment” having no human rights and no illness.

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