– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th October 2022.
1. Two weeks ago, in this chamber, I asked the First Minister about the scale of the crisis across Scotland’s accident and emergency departments. The answers were not good enough. This week, it emerged that, for the month of August alone, 5,000 patients spent more than half a day waiting to be seen in A and E departments across the country. Waits of more than 12 hours for emergency treatment are completely unacceptable, yet such waits are faced by thousands of Scots at hospitals right across the country. This Government is presiding over the worst ever A and E waiting times in Scotland, so does the First Minister believe that the plans that were outlined by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care on Tuesday will end those appalling waits?
First, performance in our accident and emergency departments is not good enough. I have been candid about that, as has the health secretary. Our national health service is dealing with backlogs that were created by the Covid pandemic; indeed, it is still dealing in many different ways with the impact of that pandemic. We continue to support the national health service to recover. That includes accident and emergency services, as it does all parts of our national health service.
Of course, it is incumbent on me to point out again that although there are big challenges in our NHS and in A and E departments, our A and E departments remain the best performing anywhere in the United Kingdom, which is down to the dedication and hard work—[
That is down to the dedication and hard work of the people who work in our national health service. Of course, staff numbers are at a record high across the NHS and investment is at a record high. Although I and the health secretary are not complacent, we believe that the measures that he set out in the recovery plan update and the winter plan will make a positive difference.
Finally, I say frankly that it beggars belief that Douglas Ross stands here and talks about the national health service. His concern today for the national health service is even less convincing than it normally is, because he has spent much of the past week arguing for us to put millions of pounds into the pockets of the richest people in our society, regardless of the impact that that would have on our national health service.
I ask the First Minister, please, to not ever question my commitment to our national health service, given that it was just over—[
.] It was just over a year ago that I had to follow my wife who was in an ambulance as she gave birth, and just over a year ago that I had to see my infant child on oxygen and fed through a tube in the Royal Aberdeen children’s hospital. She should not make political points when politicians are raising serious issues. Just as we did last year when the United Kingdom armed forces had to step in to help, we are seeing this crisis spread throughout Scotland’s NHS.
Long waiting times in A and E have a knock-on effect on the rest of our health system. A freedom of information request response that we have received shows that ambulances are queuing up outside hospitals because of the crisis inside in A and E. In Glasgow earlier this year, one ambulance was stuck outside the hospital for more than 13 hours because the patient could not be admitted. It was stuck outside for 13 hours.
The Press and Journal revealed today that, in the past month, ambulance turnaround times at Aberdeen royal infirmary were at a record high. That is critical time during which an ambulance could be deployed to help other patients. Therefore, if the First Minister can answer about Scotland’s NHS and Scotland’s ambulances, will she tell us what her Government is doing to prevent ambulances from being held up outside hospitals?
Of course, £45 million for the Scottish Ambulance Service was part of the winter plan that was announced—which is about Scotland’s national health service. I say, Presiding Officer, that I have enormous sympathy for the personal experience of Douglas Ross, as I do for the personal experience of anyone in the national health service. However, I am sorry, but I think that it is reasonable to question the commitment to the national health service of anybody who argues for millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going on cutting taxes for the richest people in our society, rather than being invested in the national health service.
It is because of the Government’s commitment to the national health service that we do not shy away from the difficulties that it faces, largely because of the Covid pandemic that has placed such burdens on health services across the world. That is why we are investing in our national health service instead of giving tax cuts to the richest people in our society. It is why we are supporting greater recruitment to our national health service, with staffing numbers at an all-time high, and it is why we are seeking a fair pay deal for the people who work in our national health service. They deserve it. We will continue to do the hard work to support our national health service in tough times as well as in good times.
Finally, we will take no lessons from the UK Government, which is doing real damage to the national health service. Although our NHS faces challenges,
Scotland’s national health service is the best performing in the UK o n A and E waiting times and on many other measurements, and that is down to the dedication of the people who work in it.
The First Minister has been busy all week on Twitter and responding to events elsewhere, but people turn to First Minister’s question time to hear the First Minister and her Government being challenged, and—hopefully—to hear responses. However, there has been absolutely nothing.
Let me go back to the topic that I am focusing on today, even if the First Minister will not do so in her responses. The FOI request that I mentioned revealed that the lengths of time that people are waiting for ambulances even to arrive is getting worse, which is unacceptable. Amber incidents involve patients who need an ambulance within 19 minutes—they have called and they need someone to arrive within that time. Our FOI request response mentioned one individual from Ayrshire and Arran, who was categorised as an amber incident but waited more than 32 hours—more than 100 times the wait of 19 minutes that he was supposed to have.
The situation is also dire for people who face the most serious incidents—purple incidents, which are so serious that the target response time is eight minutes. However, this summer, one purple incident patient in the Lothians waited more than two hours for an ambulance, and another patient, in Glasgow, waited more than an hour and a half. Others have waited close to an hour in Lanarkshire, Forth Valley, the Highlands and Shetland. Those incidents are the most critical and lives are on the line: people are waiting for hours when the response should arrive in minutes. Can the First Minister honestly stand there and tell us that those incidents are not jeopardising people’s lives?
I have been, and will continue to be, entirely candid that instances such as those are not acceptable. Our NHS is under extreme pressure, which is why it is so important that we continue to take the steps that we are taking to support it.
Douglas Ross is just plain wrong—as anybody who is listening to this will know—to say that I did not address the issues about Scotland’s NHS in my previous answers. I spoke about the £45 million of additional investment in the Scottish Ambulance Service to help specifically with winter pressures, and I spoke about record investment and record numbers of staff—in particular, the staffing of the SAS, which is up under the Scottish National Party Government by 67.3 per cent. That is the reality.
Any instances such as those that Douglas Ross narrated are clearly unacceptable. However, our ambulance crews responded to more than 68 per cent of their highest priority calls in under 10 minutes, and to more than 99 per cent of their highest priority calls in under 30 minutes. That is what the dedication of our paramedics and our ambulance technicians is delivering. We will continue to support our NHS in the ways that I have outlined.
It is not possible to separate those issues from the overall funding of our NHS, which—like the overall funding of Scotland’s budget—depends on decisions that are made by the Government at Westminster. We have already had the U-turn on tax cuts for the richest 1 per cent of people in the country, which Douglas Ross this time last week wanted this Government to emulate, and which would have taken millions of pounds out of the budget of our public services—[
Last week, the former deputy governor—I think—of the Bank of England said that the spending cuts that are coming down the track from the Tory UK Government could mean the “end of the NHS” as we know it.
That is the reality. This Government will continue to prioritise the national health service, but we are doing that in the face of a Tory Government that seems to be intent on destroying it.
We all, across Scotland, would really benefit if Nicola Sturgeon spent more of a Thursday morning practising her responses on the issues that really matter to people in Scotland, rather than political attacks.
The First Minister has to accept and must see that the situation with ambulance waiting times in our NHS is appalling and is happening all over the country.
The First Minister said that I was narrating cases, so let us look at a case that we both should know about. On Monday, she and I were both emailed by a 78-year-old man explaining what had recently happened to his 73-year-old wife. His wife fell in their garden and broke her hip. She was in agony, but was told that a broken hip does not constitute a priority for receiving an ambulance. They waited for hours for an ambulance to come to take them to Aberdeen royal infirmary, but it never arrived.
After four and a half hours outside in the garden in agony and distress—from 10 minutes to 3 in the afternoon until half past 7 at night—they gave up and called a taxi. The 78-year-old man had to get help from his neighbours to lift his wife into the taxi to eventually get her to hospital. A line in the email that the First Minister and I received says:
“She endured even more severe pain getting into the taxi but, by this time, we were getting desperate.”
The email from that gentleman also says that the First Minister’s Government should
“hang your heads in shame.”
He is right, is he not?
He is absolutely right that experiences like that are not acceptable. Nobody will ever hear me say otherwise.
Our health service, including the Ambulance Service, is under the most extreme pressure that most of us can remember. I believe that most people understand the reasons for that. I also believe that most people understand the support that is being given to the national health service, as is right and proper. There are record staffing levels in our NHS and there is record investment.
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care set out the winter plan in the chamber earlier this week.
We will continue to get on with the serious responsibility of supporting the recovery of our national health service. We will always respond on incidences in which people’s experiences are not what they should be and we will not shy away from that. The Government prioritises and supports the national health service and will continue to do so each and every day.