Sixty avoidable deaths every week in NHS hospitals confirmed by First Minister
By Bill Heaney
The Scottish National Party’s flagship Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, which takes patients from West Dunbartonshire and Helensburgh northwards, is already the worst performing in the country.
There are reports of nurses at the hospital working 24-hour shifts. It is disgraceful to put national health service staff in that situation and, despite their incredible efforts, it could be harmful to patients, Tory leader Douglas Ross told the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.
He claimed that a whistleblower has said: “We are struggling to cope. In short, we’re struggling to provide first world care in what feels like a third world environment.”
And he asked Nicola Sturgeon: “Given that, how can the First Minister say that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has done all that he can to support NHS staff and prepare for this crisis?”
The First Minister replied: “First, in relation to reports in the media this morning about staff in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde being asked to work 24-hour shifts, I am assured by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the board has said publicly, that this is not true.
“There is absolutely no truth to these claims. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde does not ask nursing staff to work a 24-hour shift, and there was no prospect that any staff member would need to work for 24 hours. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate and misleading.”
She added: “Staff across the national health service in Scotland—and, indeed, staff across the national health services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—are struggling right now. They are doing an extraordinary and magnificent job, and my heartfelt thanks go to all of them. However, they are struggling in the face of unprecedented pressure on our national health service—pressure from Covid and, even more so, in recent weeks, from flu and other respiratory illnesses. We hope that that pressure will abate in the weeks to come, but in the meantime the Government continues to do everything possible to support NHS boards as they address those pressures.
Tory leader Douglas Ross asked Nicola Sturgeon to fire Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.
“We have empowered NHS boards to take action that they think is appropriate to protect critical and life-saving care. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has paused non-urgent elective procedures so that it can prioritise urgent treatment and cancer care, and I would expect that to be for a very short period.
“Finally, it insults people’s intelligence to suggest that the problems that are being encountered in the NHS in Scotland, which are the same as the problems that are being encountered elsewhere, are somehow down to the health secretary. Is it, for example, the fault of Humza Yousaf that the kind of action that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde announced last night has also been taken in health services in south London, Surrey, York, Scarborough, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton and Portsmouth? I could probably go on. These are unprecedented pressures, which we continue to support our NHS to address.”
Tory leader Douglas Ross looked round at applauding SNP MSPs: “How can nationalist MSPs clap such a despicable answer from Scotland’s First Minister, in Scotland’s Parliament, about Scotland’s national health service?”
He said: “Let us ignore the nationalist MSPs; let us look at what medical professionals are saying. They are damning about this Government’s response to the crisis here in Scotland. On Monday, the First Minister placed some of the blame for the grave situation in A and E departments on, in her own words, ‘unnecessary attendances’, but Dr Lailah Peel, deputy chair of BMA Scotland, criticised patient-blaming language, saying that it shows a lack of understanding of the current crisis.
“We have analysed the figures, and Dr Peel is spot on. There are fewer people in A and E now than there were in the years leading up to the Covid pandemic. The problem is not unnecessary attendances. Fewer people attended A and E in the first week of this year than did in the first weeks of 2020, 2019, 2018 or 2017. Will the First Minister accept that the blame lies with her Government and not the patients?”
The First Minister countered: “Nobody, including me—certainly not me—is blaming patients. It is the case that unecessary visits to accident and emergency units and unnecessary attendances and admissions to hospital are not in the interests of patients. That is why we are working hard to make sure that, where patients can and should be treated elsewhere, that happens.
“There is absolutely no doubt that demand on our health service right now is higher than it has been for some time. If we look at calls to NHS 24 over the festive period, those showed the highest demand in a decade. If we look at emergency calls to the Scottish Ambulance Service, those were higher in the most recent week than the average of the four weeks before that. The reason that they are not all translating into attendances at accident and emergency units or admissions to hospital is the work that NHS 24 and the Scottish Ambulance Service are doing to avoid that.
“NHS 24 now provides advice and, where necessary, treatment to the vast majority of patients during the initial call that they make. Most of the calls to the Ambulance Service are treated through see and treat, so that patients are not taken to hospital. However, because of that, those who do go to hospital tend to be sicker and their length of stay is longer. That is part of the reason why we have pressure on our hospitals.
“The waiting times in A and E are a reflection of the fact that occupancy in our hospitals is so high, which is why we have focused on speeding up discharge from hospital, where appropriate.
“Finally, we listen very carefully to, engage with and work with health professionals each and every day, and it would be hard for me to find the appropriate words to describe my respect for our health professionals. Elsewhere in the UK this week, we have seen healthcare professionals on strike. They have not been on strike in Scotland, because of the work that this health secretary has done and because of the respect that we have for our healthcare professionals.”
Douglas Ross, however, was not content with that answer. He said: “I think that those words may come back to haunt the First Minister. Also, if we are judging cabinet secretaries on sectors striking, I would hate to be Shirley-Anne Somerville right now.
“We have just heard it: the First Minister is doubling down on her patient-blaming language. The problem is not too many people attending A and E; it is the Government’s handling of the NHS crisis in Scotland. Dr Peel said that Exit block is the problem in A&E and the Government has known that to be a huge issue for years.
“In her previous answer, the First Minister defended her position by saying that people are getting sicker, but people who are healthy and ready to go home cannot get out of hospital because the First Minister and her Government have not dealt with bed blocking. They were failing to tackle that issue before the Covid pandemic, and now it is worse than ever.
“New reports out today state that the number of avoidable deaths occurring in Scotland is now 60 people a week. That is 60 families, across our country, every single week, grieving the loss of a loved one who could have been saved. First Minister, will you confirm those tragic figures?”
The First Minister told him: “What I will absolutely confirm is that, when people wait too long for treatment, it has severe consequences, potentially, for patients.
“That is why we work so hard, and will continue to work so hard, with the health service to reduce long waits for treatment, whether that is at accident and emergency units or for elective care in our national health service.
“I was not—to use Douglas Ross’s phrase—“doubling down” on anything. For the avoidance of any doubt, I am certainly not blaming patients for anything. It is in the interest of patients that, where appropriate, they can be treated outside hospital, because it is not in the interest of any patient to end up in an accident and emergency unit or hospital ward just because treatment is not available in the community.
“I was trying to explain—because it is obvious from Douglas Ross’s questions that he does not understand this—the flow of patients through our national health service and that the reason why we see longer waits at accident and emergency is over-occupancy in our hospital wards.
“Finally, on the exit block, the significant chunk of what I and the health secretary set out on Monday was about tackling delayed discharges. We understand, from our daily engagement with health boards that the number of delayed discharges has reduced slightly in recent weeks, but there is much more to do. That was the reason for the interventions and the additional funding that I indicated on Monday and that the health secretary set out to the chamber on Tuesday.
“We will continue to focus on providing the support and making the interventions that are necessary right now to help the NHS during this period of unprecedented demand. I remind Douglas Ross and other members of the unprecedented demand that is being faced not just in Scotland but all over the UK, and in much of the rest of the world as well.”
Douglas Ross said: “The First Minister has effectively confirmed that the tragic figures that we heard this morning are correct. That there are 60 avoidable deaths every single week in Scotland’s NHS is confirmed by Scotland’s First Minister.
Scotland’s health secretary is making the situation worse, not better. Here is just one example of what we are experiencing across Scotland. On Hogmanay, a family visited their 80-year-old uncle. He has had major heart surgery and hip operations, and he often struggles to breathe. When they arrived, they discovered that he had fallen and broken his neck. The family dialled 999 seven times, and it took more than 12 and a half hours for the ambulance to arrive. That was seven emergency calls, over 12 and a half hours, for an 80-year-old who had broken their neck. His niece told us:
“The ambulance crews were brilliant, but we are disgusted at what our uncle has been put through.”
“That dire situation confirms, yet again, that the health secretary and the Government are not on top of this crisis. His failures are creating risk to lives across the country. First Minister, surely, for the good of Scotland, it is time to sack Humza Yousaf.”
Picture: Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital.