Scottish Ambulance Service (Waiting Times)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th November 2021.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. On this day, 11 November, we pay tribute to those who gave so much and sacrificed their lives to protect us, and we thank those who are currently serving in our armed forces and all the veterans across our country for everything that they have done to keep us safe. [

Applause

.]

For months, we have seen tragic cases of people waiting far too long for emergency help. We heard this week of 55-year-old Richard Brown, who lost his life after waiting five hours for an ambulance. In his final moments, he was alone in the stairwell of his tenement building, struggling to breathe. A neighbour repeatedly called for an ambulance, and the final time they checked on Richard, they saw that his ears had turned white and he had stopped breathing.

Deputy First Minister, why is this happening in Scotland today?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Before I come to the substance of Mr Ross’s question, I say that, as a Parliament and as a country, today we fell silent to mark armistice day. In doing so, we pay tribute to armed services personnel both past and present, and we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This year marks 100 years of the Royal British Legion Scotland and the Scottish poppy appeal. In that time, the appeal has supported countless servicemen and women, veterans and their families. I know that I speak for everyone in the chamber in offering our thanks and our continued support for the efforts of the Scottish poppy appeal and the important work that it and the Royal British Legion Scotland do for us all, and especially for services personnel.

Today, I am answering questions on the First Minister’s behalf as she is at the conference of the parties in Glasgow.

Mr Ross raises a serious issue in relation to Richard Brown. First, I want to express my sympathy to Mr Brown’s family, because he should not have had the experience that he had, and I am very sorry that his family are enduring the extra agony that they are having to endure in addition to the loss of Mr Brown. An investigation into the circumstances relating to the delay in reaching Mr Brown has been launched, and all findings and lessons will be shared with his family as part of that process.

To move to the general question, first of all, I recognise the enormous pressures faced by the Scottish Ambulance Service. The Government has been clear in that recognition. I think that part of the explanation, perhaps, is the level of demand that is being placed on the Scottish Ambulance Service as a consequence of the pressures that there are on the whole healthcare system in Scotland. As an illustration of that, I note that, in August 2018, the Scottish Ambulance Service responded to 5,788 immediately life-threatening incidents. By October 2021, that figure had reached 10,733—it had almost doubled. I say that simply to explain and quantify the pressures that the Scottish Ambulance Service is under.

The Government has provided increased investment of £20 million to support the staff, and staff recruitment is under way. We will continue to invest in the work of the Scottish Ambulance Service to make sure that it has the capacity to undertake the tasks that it needs to undertake, and to ensure that other families do not have the experience of Mr Brown’s family.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The problem is, Deputy First Minister, that other families are having that experience. This is not the first time that I have raised in the chamber a distressing case like Richard Brown’s. We have raised several cases where lives have been unnecessarily lost.

This week, Dr John Thomson of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine told a Scottish Parliament committee that excessive waiting times are resulting in avoidable deaths. He laid out the grim facts. For every 67 people who wait at accident and emergency for more than eight hours, somebody dies. If we look at just the past two months, according to Dr Thomson’s estimate, there will have been more than 200 avoidable deaths. Lives are being lost that could have been saved.

Will the Deputy First Minister therefore accept that the Scottish Government simply is not doing enough to support our emergency health services in their time of greatest need?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The research that Mr Ross cites is based on data and experience within the ambulance service and experience within England. We are engaging with Mr Thomson to establish the comparability issues that will arise out of that information.

I say to Mr Ross that, first of all, I do not want it to be suggested in any way that I do not recognise the pressures on the health service generally and the Scottish Ambulance Service in particular. I acknowledged that at the outset of my answers, and that is why the Government has put in place increased investment of £20 million. Over the past two months, we have already seen 179 new staff join the Scottish Ambulance Service, and that will rise to 356 by the spring.

Under this Government, the Scottish Ambulance Service budget has risen—it has received sustained investment over our period in office—but we must take forward a series of measures at every stage of the national health service to reduce the immediate burden on it. That means that we must have whole-systems solutions in place to boost social care capacity so that people are better supported in their homes and, therefore, have less need to use the Scottish Ambulance Service; to ensure that there are improvements in the level of delayed discharges, which are the focus of great attention from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, so that our hospitals are less congested; and, crucially, to ensure that people have a swift journey through accident and emergency departments, when they require to be there.

Those issues are all the subject of on-going attention from the health secretary and ministers. The health secretary met the Scottish Ambulance Service yesterday to discuss these questions, and that dialogue will continue.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The dialogue has to continue, but we need action as a result of that dialogue. This morning, there are worrying reports from paramedics and ambulance staff that they are at breaking point. A survey found that more than half of ambulance staff in Scotland have seen patients die or become seriously ill because of long waiting times.

Pat Rafferty, secretary of Unite Scotland, said:

“The workers at the Scottish Ambulance Service are sending out their own 999 call to the Scottish Government saying that they are undervalued, stressed, and exhausted.”

How will the Scottish Government answer that emergency call?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That is very important, given the fact that ambulance personnel—as is the case for many people who work in the health service—are dealing with trauma on a constant basis. Over the past 18 months, our health service professionals’ experience of trauma has been even greater because of the significant burden of Covid. That is why the Government has invested £12 million in supporting the wellbeing of members of staff, as we must have healthy staff if we want to have a healthy population. Those individuals must be able to exercise their functions and responsibilities and be supported in so doing.

I have seen the survey evidence that Mr Ross cites. I am troubled by it because, clearly, I want staff to feel valued. I can say that from this podium, and we can reinforce that with the investment that we make. Over this Government’s period in office, investment in the Scottish Ambulance Service has risen by 74 per cent and staffing has increased by 62 per cent. However, I acknowledge that there are significant demands on the service. We have put in place that investment and staff numbers are rising. Staff are doing a magnificent job in really difficult circumstances, and I give them the assurance that the Government is not looking at the challenges of the Scottish Ambulance Service alone, because the selfsame staff who completed the survey to which Mr Ross refers will be aware that meeting the challenges that they face requires a whole-health-service-system solution, which is about social care, accident and emergency services and tackling delayed discharges, and those are all the issues that the Government is prioritising.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The Deputy First Minister is right: this is about not just ambulance staff but workers across the NHS—including nurses, who are considering strike action. It is about doctors, medical students, paramedics and nurses—everyone in the NHS is desperately trying to save lives, but they do not have the resources that they need. They are crying out for help. Front-line staff have sent out their own 999 call to the Government. Scotland’s NHS needs more support. This winter will be its toughest ever test. There is an extra £605 million coming to the Scottish Government this year. How much of that money will the Deputy First Minister’s Government commit to Scotland’s NHS right now?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Ross will appreciate that, although I used to be close to decision making on financial issues, I am no longer the finance secretary. I will leave those questions for the budget debate, which will take place on 9 December.

What I can say to Mr Ross is this: employment in the national health service has never been higher than it is today. There has been a consistent increase in employment in the national health service in all areas of responsibility. I talked about Scottish Ambulance Service personnel a moment ago, but in every area of the national health service—for example, consultants and nurses—there has been growth in the number of staff recruited and employed.

On the question of pay, our nurses are the best paid in the United Kingdom and we have given them the best offer of an increase.

I appreciate that there are many strains on the national health service and that those strains are being felt by many members of staff, but I want to make it absolutely clear that the Scottish Government values every individual who contributes to the operation of the national health service. We applaud what they are doing in very difficult circumstances and assure them that we will resource them to enable them to continue to do that work. In that way, together as a country, we can overcome the enormous burdens that we have faced as a result of Covid and ensure that we support the population to health. We need the national health service to deliver on that objective.