By Bill Heaney
Labour leader Anas Sarwar brought the hilarity to a halt at Holyrood on Thursday when he accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of “defending the indefensible and asking patients to accept the unacceptable”.
He told MSPs: “Members of her Government accept that the NHS is in crisis. Kate Forbes has said that more of the same will not cut it, and she has called out Humza Yousaf for delivering record waiting times.
“After nearly 16 years in Government, the performance of our NHS is the worst that it has ever been. It needs a serious plan to fix it. Does the First Minister agree that continuity, mediocrity and incompetence will not cut it?”
Ms Sturgeon said the challenges for the NHS in Scotland were little different from health services across much of the world “largely because of the pandemic that has afflicted us all in the past three years”.
She added: “However, because of the recovery plan, the record investment that we are putting into the NHS and the record number of staff that it has, we are now seeing progress in its recovery. On waiting times for out-patients, the number of people who are experiencing waits of more than a year is down by almost 9 per cent in the last quarter; and the number of people waiting for more than two years is down by 50 per cent in the last quarter, and down 60 per cent since the peak. We are seeing similar reductions in the numbers for in-patients and those who are waiting for diagnostic tests.”
The First Minister added: “The number of people who are being seen in our NHS is going up. Is that tough? Yes. It is toughest of all for everyone who is working in our NHS, but our focus on the NHS is resulting in those improvements and will continue to do so.”
Anas Sarwar brushed that reply aside. He said: “Incompetence has serious consequences. Dr Chris Adams, one of Scotland’s leading paediatric surgeons, says that his patients are suffering because of a lack of staff, and that he has had enough. Crucially, he says that those problems are not due to Covid.”
Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
And he quoted the case of a nine-year-old named Harvey Martin. Harvey is nine years old and suffers from neurofibromatosis, which is a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow on the nervous system. In August last year, he was told that he needed urgent surgery within four weeks to correct a curve in his spine. Seven months on, he is still waiting. The curve is now harming his internal organs, and he has been left in excruciating pain. A nine-year-old in excruciating pain for seven months: that is a serious consequence of incompetence.
“Harvey’s mum, Natalie, told me yesterday that she cannot watch her child in pain any longer. She is looking at private options and will fundraise for Harvey’s treatment. First Minister, why are children having to wait so long for urgent treatment, and why are families having to contemplate paying to relieve their child’s pain?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “No parent should have to contemplate that. Other than those that Anas Sarwar has just shared, I do not know the details of Harvey’s case, but I will look into that and will respond more fully.
I have heard the concerns that Dr Chris Adams expressed and I know that those have been investigated. As I understand it, those concerns are general and are not in relation to Harvey’s case in particular. I asked officials to ensure that we have more external assurance to satisfy ourselves that there is no substance to those concerns.
“As we all know, the NHS is facing significant challenges, which are largely down to Covid There were pressures that predated Covid but, in most countries, the pressures on health services are down to Covid. That is why we are focusing on investment, recruitment and reform to help tackle those challenges.
“We have record numbers of staff in our NHS today. Since this Government took office, staffing has gone up by 22 per cent. We have higher staffing per head than NHS England and higher numbers of nurses, midwives and doctors than in the health services of other parts of the United Kingdom. We will continue focusing hard, each and every day, on supporting our NHS so that it is delivering for all patients, including children like Harvey, every day.
“And I will look further into the specifics of Harvey’s case and will respond either to Anas Sarwar or directly to Harvey’s family, in due course.”
Anas Sarwar said that the problems in the NHS are not due to Covid — “so the First Minister needs to stop hiding behind Covid. Secondly, incompetence has serious consequences. Incompetence might be funny in a Scottish National Party leadership debate, but incompetence in Government means that people are losing their lives, right now, across Scotland.
“Across Scotland, thousands of people are opting to pay for treatment because they cannot wait for the NHS. Research by the BBC shows that one in five people says that they or a family member have paid for medical treatment—one in five
“NHS staff such as Dr Adams are speaking out about waiting times because of the risk to their patients’ lives. Shamefully, other clinicians were gagged from speaking out publicly by the Lothian and Greater Glasgow and Clyde health boards. They know that there is a crisis.
“Thousands of operations have been cancelled; we have the worst accident and emergency waiting times on record; there are more than 5,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies; 770,000 patients are on NHS waiting lists; and there are record-breaking levels of delayed discharge.
“This is a crisis 16 years in the making because of SNP mismanagement of our NHS. None of the candidates to replace Nicola Sturgeon is up to the job of fixing that, because the people who created the problem cannot be the ones to fix that problem.”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I said that, in relation to the general comments and concerns that Dr Adams has cited, I have asked for further external assurance to ensure that we have properly investigated those. No one is hiding behind anything.
“Anas Sarwar must be one of the only people—Douglas Ross is in that category as well—who steadfastly refuses to recognise the impact of Covid on the NHS and wants pretend that Covid did not happen.
“There were pressures on our NHS before that, but everyone understands the significant exacerbation of those pressures on the NHS that was caused by Covid. That is the case in Scotland, Wales, England and in most other countries across Europe and around the world.
“This is really important: I have said this many times and it does the NHS a disservice for Anas Sarwar to suggest otherwise. No NHS staff are gagged. We have whistle-blowing arrangements in our national health service, and all staff who have concerns should feel able to come forward and raise those.
“I have taken the duty and responsibility of this office seriously, as everyone has the right to expect me to do, every single day, right through the very difficult days of Covid and on every other day beside. I will continue doing that for my remaining days in office and I know that whoever stands here after me will also do that.
“Government is difficult at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. However, the people of Scotland are the ultimate arbiters of who is competent, who is doing the job well and who is not, and they have put their trust in this Government consistently since 2007, and eight times in the eight years of my leadership.
“The task of my successor is to make sure that they retain that trust. It is precious and it is essential to achieving anything.”