Anas Sarwar, Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Ross clashed at First Minister’s Questions while SNP leadership favourite Humza Yousaf was described as “useless”.

By Bill Heaney

The NHS in Scotland is critically ill and requires to be moved immediately to intensive care.

However, ambulances can be hard to come by these days and, like everyone else with a medical problem, it will have to wait … and wait … and then wait again.

Labour leader Anas Sarwar told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was the edgiest I have seen her in the Holyrood chamber, that the Audit Scotland report on the national health service makes “grim reading”  for the SNP Government. For everyone in fact.

He told MSPs that the report supports what patients and staff have been saying all along about waiting times.

And it soon became clear, as the blood rushed to her face, that the possibility of Ms Sturgeon doing her personal piece of bed blocking by remaining past her time to leave at Bute House was an impossible dream.

Mr Sarwar said: “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, NHS boards were already struggling to meet waiting times standards for planned care, and the performance has deteriorated further since.

“The report confirms that Covid did not cause the problems. They were there before Covid but were, of course, exacerbated by Covid. After nearly 16 years of Scottish National Party Government, what went wrong?”

The First Minister had just had the political equivalent of a scourging at the pillar from Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross. 

However, there was a moment’s respite for her when Mr Sarwar metaphorically wiped her face with a towel before ramming the crown of thorns that is the NHS down around her ears.

She pleaded: “Our NHS faces the most significant challenges that it has faced at any point in its history. That is largely because of the pandemic, but, as I have reflected before, there were challenges in our health service before the pandemic.

“Changing demographics and ever-increasing expectations of what health services can deliver are, in themselves, positive trends but ones that nevertheless pose challenges for the health service.

“What has changed over the years that we have been in Government?

“Funding for the national health service has doubled and is higher, proportionately, than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

“Staffing in our health service has increased significantly. As the Auditor General recognises in this morning’s report, we are also seeing the signs of reform and innovation so that we can equip our health service to cope with the challenges.

“I do not deny the challenges. However, what the NHS needs and has is a Government that will continue to support it and focus on addressing those challenges. That is the responsibility of Government, and that is what I believe the people of Scotland deserve and want to see continue.”

Anas Sarwar said: “The truth is that this Government took its eye off the ball when it came to the NHS. It did not prioritise the NHS as it should have done. It was not prepared, and it still has not caught up.

“The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care [Humza Yousaf] launched his NHS recovery plan in August 2021, but, according to Audit Scotland:

“current activity is running well below NHS Recovery Plan targets”,

“More people are being added to waiting lists than are being removed from them, and people are waiting longer for treatment”,

“performance against cancer waiting times standards is getting worse”,

longer waiting times

“are negatively impacting people’s health”,

and, finally,

“The number of people dying each year is still higher than average”.

He added: “Things are getting worse, not better. The report is damning, and it is clear that Humza Yousaf has failed. He published a recovery plan that was more about spin than about substance.

“As a result, patient outcomes are getting worse, staff are burnt out and the NHS is going backwards.

“Does the First Minister finally accept the conclusions in Audit Scotland’s report?”

The First Minister replied: “I do accept the conclusions in Audit Scotland’s report. The challenges for our national health service are significant. The recommendations in the report are important, and we will seriously consider each and every one of them.

“Staff have been working incredibly hard, and I recognise the description of the burnout that many NHS staff will feel. That is why it has been so important to give them the fairest possible pay increase and to ensure that, unlike the situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, NHS staff in Scotland have not had to go on strike to get the decent, set pay offer that has now been made.

“As an aside on that issue, to bring pay for NHS agenda for change nurses in England up to the level of pay for those in Scotland, the United Kingdom Government would have to offer them a 14 per cent pay increase. That is the gap that now exists.

“In terms of our focus on the national health service, we have doubled funding for the NHS since coming to office; the budget that was passed this week in Parliament increases NHS funding by a further £1 billion; front-line spending in Scotland is 10 per cent higher than in England; and we have more staff, including more staff per head of population, than other parts of the UK.

“On waiting times, yes, there is much to do, but we have seen a reduction in the longest waits; we have a number of national treatment centres opening this year, which will see an additional 12,000 procedures able to be undertaken in the NHS; and, although cancer waiting times are challenged, as all waiting times are, we are seeing more patients being treated on the key cancer pathways.

“There is much work to do, but this Government has a real focus on supporting our national health service, because that is our responsibility.”

Anas Sarwar replied: “It is important that we look at the facts. The number of people who were waiting for more than a year for in-patient treatment when Humza Yousaf became health secretary was 22,000. That number was already too high, but, according to Audit Scotland, it now stands at more than 35,000 people.

“When he took charge of the NHS, 84.1 per cent of people were seen within the 62-day cancer standard; now, the figure is just 74.7 per cent. More than one in four cancer patients are not being seen on time.

“In the week that Humza Yousaf was appointed health secretary, 3,448 people waited for more than four hours in accident and emergency; this week, the number is 7,572—it has more than doubled, even though fewer people are going to A and E.

“On every single measure, this health secretary has failed to get the NHS back on track. In fact, this is the worst it has ever been.”

And making reference to the SNP leadership contest and the contest to become First Minister, Mr Sarwar asked: “Does the First Minister really believe that the man responsible for failing Scotland’s NHS should be responsible for our country?”

The First Minister referred the Labour leader to the Audit Scotland report which says: ‘The … pandemic continues to affect the delivery of NHS services. … Scotland’s NHS is not alone in facing these issues… and … ‘Many of the factors … are not within the control of the Scottish Government.'”

Tory leader Douglas Ross, accused by Ms Sturgeon of plasying politics, was having none of it.

He said: “Shameful—that is the only way to describe that answer from the First Minister, because she made no mention of a patient who, at the tail end of last year, waited for two and a half days in accident and emergency.

“The clue is in the name. They went there for emergency treatment and sat for two and a half days, but the First Minister’s answer to that patient is that Scotland’s health service is the best performing health service anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is little comfort to people who are waiting hours or days for treatment.

“The First Minister might not have noticed that, when I sat down after mentioning those shocking statistics, Humza Yousaf smiled and smirked. The health secretary thinks that it is funny that people are waiting for days to be seen in A and E in Scotland.

“The First Minister mentioned and quoted from the Audit Scotland report on the NHS. Let us remember that, this morning, the British Medical Association Scotland said that the report is ‘damning’ of the current state of the NHS. The report outlines that Nicola Sturgeon’s chosen successor will not meet NHS job targets and says that

“performance declined further in 2022.”

In addition, the report says that

“The number of people experiencing an extremely long wait … increased in 2022”

and that performance on cancer waiting times is getting worse.

“Every part of Scotland’s NHS is in crisis because of Humza Yousaf. Can the First Minister tell us whether the useless health secretary is really the best that the SNP has to offer?”

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