By Bill Heaney
Scotland’s hospitals are “almost completely full”, with bed occupancy exceeding 95% last week, the first minister has said.
Nicola Sturgeon, pictured right, said services were facing “truly unprecedented” pressures.
Demand for hospital beds had been driven up by “extraordinary” levels of winter flu, rising rates of Covid infections and cases of Strep A, at least one of which has emanated in Dumbarton.
Ms Sturgeon said more work needed to be done to prevent unnecessary hospital attendances and to speed up discharges.
Staffing of the NHS 24 helpline is to be increased, while health boards will be backed in maximising capacity by opening GP practices on Saturdays.
In a special briefing at the Scottish government’s St Andrew’s House headquarters, Ms Sturgeon said this was “almost certainly the most difficult winter ever for the NHS”.
She said the pandemic had dealt a “significant shock to the system” and that this, coupled with “extraordinary levels of other illnesses”, was creating unprecedented pressure.
More than 400 people with Covid-19 were admitted to hospital last week, on top of more than 1,000 patients with winter flu for the second week running.
Ms Sturgeon said there had been more than 100,000 calls to NHS 24 over the holiday period, the highest number in more than a decade.
Meanwhile the ambulance services responded to more than 16,000 emergency incidents in the past week, up 11% on the average for the previous four weeks.
On Wednesday last week, hospital bed occupancy exceeded 95% – compared to 87% in the same week in 2020.
Ms Sturgeon said hospitals were currently “almost completely full” and that more needed to be done to reduce “unnecessary attendances”.
This will include an expansion of the NHS 24 helpline, with an acceleration of work on a new app and self-help guides.
Ms Sturgeon said services were also working on “other options for patients who do not need to be at accident and emergency”.
The first minister added that more was being done to speed up the discharge of patients from hospital, with 1,700 people currently estimated to be stuck in hospitals.
Extra funds are being given to health and social care partnerships to book extra care home beds, with the goal of freeing up capacity on wards.
Health boards will also be given fresh guidance on the “escalation contingencies” they can take to protect “critical and life-saving care”.
Opposition parties at Holyrood have called for the Scottish government to take responsibility for the difficulties facing services.
Both the Conservatives and Labour have demanded the resignation of Health Secretary Humza Yousaf, with the Tories saying he had “lost the confidence of NHS staff”.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie said Ms Sturgeon “needs to sack Humza Yousaf [pictured left] and appoint someone who is up to the job”.
She said: “Staff are exhausted, services are at breaking point and patients are dying – but the First Minister used her briefing on the state of the NHS to spend more time making excuses than setting out solutions.
“Faced with the most difficult winter in NHS history, the SNP are deflecting blame and rehashing the same old promises they have been making for years.
“By Nicola Sturgeon’s own admission, hospitals are full and the healthcare system is buckling under the pressure. Since 2020, I have been calling for unused wards at the Vale of Leven Hospital to be used to help alleviate problems surrounding capacity. Humza Yousaf himself said, almost a year ago, that he would look into this but nothing has changed.
“The changes which were suggested this morning will barely scratch the surface of this deadly crisis and fail to grapple with the major structural problems clinicians are raising.
“Instead of quietly sidelining her own Health Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon needs to sack Humza Yousaf and appoint someone up to the job.
“We need action now to support health and social care workers, drive down waiting lists, invest in social care, and tackle delayed discharge for good.”
However, Ms Sturgeon insisted that the health secretary was “doing a very good job in very difficult circumstances”.
Mr Yousaf said he was “working relentlessly, leaving no stone unturned to make sure I am providing as much support as I possibly can to the health service”.
The first minister also said that “in a relative sense, NHS Scotland is dealing with some of these pressures in a better way than we would see elsewhere and some of the statistics bear that out”.
Top picture: The Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, which takes patients from West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute.