Scotland’s crisis-ridden NHS will remain on an emergency footing for at least another six months, the SNP’s Health Secretary has disclosed as nurses threatened industrial action over their pay.
Humza Yousaf warned the health service was facing a “challenging winter” despite a rapid fall in Covid cases in recent weeks, which meant having to prioritise the most “vital services” above non-urgent care.
Jeane Freeman, his predecessor, initially put the NHS on an emergency footing for a minimum of three months when Covid hit Scotland back in March 2020.
However, this led to non-urgent care being postponed and a surge in waiting times, with a huge treatment backlog. A recent rise in cases saw several hospitals cancel non-urgent operations again.
Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Health Secretary. said it was “astonishing” that the extension had been announced in a written parliamentary question instead of the Health Secretary making a statement to MSPs.
Dire shortage of ambulance drivers and A&E beds
The announcement came the day after Cancer Research UK warned survival rates for the disease in Scotland could drop for the first time ever as the crisis-hit NHS struggles to cope with “chronic shortages in staff and equipment” this winter.
Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to call in the British Army after a dire shortage of ambulance drivers and accident and emergency beds left the sick and dying waiting hours for help.
Official figures published this week showed the number of hospital beds in Scotland have continued their long-term decline under the SNP over the past year.
In a further headache for Mr Yousaf, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) yesterday announced it was holding an indicative ballot on industrial action in the Scottish NHS.
The aim is to establish what form of industrial action RCN members would be willing to take in support of their trade dispute with the Scottish Government and NHS employers over pay. The union has rejected a four per cent rise.
Mr Yousaf said: “With the continued increased demands on services across health and social care, we must ensure that the vital services provided by our NHS are protected as we move into a challenging winter period.
“This means we must continue with a measured and consistent approach to remobilising and renewing across our system.”
He added: “It is clear that as we move into the winter period, we need to continue to balance the capacity of the NHS to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic against increasing demands of emergency, urgent and planned care and delayed discharges.
‘My colleagues in the health service are completely overwhelmed’
“With this in mind, I have decided that the NHS will remain on an emergency footing until at least March, 31 2022.”
But Dr Gulhane said: “It is astonishing Humza Yousaf didn’t announce a decision of this magnitude to Parliament first. He now wants to avoid scrutiny despite confirming our health service will be on an emergency footing for at least another six months.
“He’s had to call in the British Army to sort out ambulance wait times. My colleagues in the health service are completely overwhelmed.”
Julie Lamberth, chair of RCN Scotland Board, said that nursing staff were examining industrial action after “reaching the end of their tether” during the pandemic and a decade of “feeling undervalued and under-resourced”.
She said: “It’s a last resort and an extremely difficult decision for nursing staff even to consider industrial action. But the current staffing challenges are causing unacceptable risks to patients and staff.”
Mr Yousaf said the move was “disappointing” as Scotland’s nurses had been offered “the biggest pay rise in 20 years and the best in the entire UK”.