3. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that nursing staff at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital are routinely left in charge of up to 30 patients and are forced to conduct 5 am bed washes due to staff shortages. (S6T-00975)
The Scottish Government expects health boards to ensure that at all times there are sufficient suitably qualified staff to support the provision of high-quality care. That includes reviewing staffing levels daily, with decisions regarding real-time staffing being made throughout the day.
It is my understanding that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde does not ask nursing staff to carry out any non-essential care for patients in the night-time hours or early morning. Doing so is not its policy and that remains the case. The board supplements wards with healthcare support workers to support tasks at appropriate times as part of the wider care team.
The cabinet secretary will be well aware of the wider problems that our national health service faces. Spiralling waiting times, missed targets and, indeed, impending strike action due to low pay have been routinely discussed in the chamber and are common knowledge.
Just last week, a whistleblower contacted me to express their grave concerns about the conditions that nurses and patients face at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. They explained that nurses are
“frequently left in charge of up to 30 patients”, and how they are forced, despite having raised concerns with management, to conduct deeply inhumane 5 am bed washes of vulnerable patients due to severe understaffing. Was the cabinet secretary aware of that prior to the press reports on Sunday? If he was, does he think that either scenario is acceptable?
Of course I am aware, and the Government is aware, of the extreme pressures right across our acute sites, including the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Having heard the allegations that have been made, we sought immediate assurance from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which, I repeat, has said that the policy remains that it does not ask nurses to carry out any non-essential care for patients—including bed washes—during the night or in the early morning. That is not the policy.
That said, if Paul Sweeney has details of those allegations, I will be happy to speak to him. Indeed, I would also be happy to speak to the whistleblower, off table, in a confidential space.
Whistleblowing is important. I have met the whistleblowing champion in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Charles Vincent, and I reiterated to him the importance that I attach to whistleblowing. If the issues in question have been raised with senior management and have not been rectified, that would concern me. However, as I said, I sought assurances from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and it has told me that that is not routine practice.
I appreciate that, prior to the press reports, the cabinet secretary might have been unaware of the practice, but I urge him to investigate the matter further, and I welcome his offer to meet me and, potentially, the whistleblower, should they be interested in having such a meeting.
Since the publication of that story in
, current and former NHS staff have contacted me to say that the practice has been going on for years and is not exclusive to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. The reality is that
“Nurse staffing levels across Scotland’s health and social care services are dangerously low and patient care is suffering as a result.”
Those are not my words; they are the words of the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, Colin Poolman.
As well as acknowledging that the issue requires immediate investigation, will the cabinet secretary accept with some humility the fact that it is the decisions that his Government has taken over the past 14 years in which it has been in power that have resulted in staff being demoralised and overstretched to the point of taking industrial action, and which have left us with a system in our health service in which staffing levels are so low that staff are being forced to conduct such inhumane practices, despite the fact that it risks impeding patients’ recovery?
If we look over the past 10 years, we can see that nursing and midwifery student intake numbers have increased over consecutive years. In fact, they have almost doubled over that decade.
I acknowledge that staffing—nursing staffing in particular, in the case of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde—has been a problem and continues to be an issue. That is why I was really pleased to see nearly 600 newly qualified nurses and midwives being welcomed to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and starting their jobs in the past few weeks. That has helped to reduce the vacancy level.
Under this Government, we have record levels of staffing in the NHS and, of course, we have the best paid staff anywhere in the United Kingdom. However, neither I nor anyone else in the Government is complacent about the staffing challenges that exist, which is why I will—as Mr Sweeney would expect—get back round the table with our trade unions and our staff side representatives to make sure that we do everything in our power to avoid strike action, which I know would be catastrophic for the NHS in the course of this winter.
Nurses are doing their best in trying to deliver care at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, but they are at breaking point. Overtime is up and the Scottish Government is responsible. The Scottish Government does not have their backs, and any semblance of trust that staff and patients had in the cabinet secretary has evaporated. Working conditions in the NHS are so bad that 70 per cent of nurses said that they felt that their most recent shift had been unsafe and that patient care had been compromised. With an NHS winter crisis fast approaching, the situation seems unlikely to improve.
What specific action will the cabinet secretary announce today? Rather than a woolly announcement, we need action that he can guarantee will improve the working conditions of nurses and thus patient safety, which was woeful before Covid, when there were a record 6,000 vacancies.
I reiterate that neither I nor this Government is in any way complacent about the challenges that face our NHS staff in Scotland. Those problems are faced by health services across the United Kingdom, but it is worth noting that we have more qualified nurses and midwives per 1,000 of the population than in England. For example, we have 8.3 qualified nurses and midwives per 1,000 people in Scotland, in comparison with 6 in England. We also have higher staffing per head than other parts of the UK.
Notwithstanding that, the rate of vacancies is too high. That is why I stood in the chamber a number of weeks ago and committed additional funding to international recruitment of 750 overseas nurses, midwives and allied health professionals.
If Sandesh Gulhane had any influence whatsoever, it would be better if he demanded that his party provided the Scottish Government with additional funding, because it is due to that party’s economic incompetence that my budget is now worth £650 million less.
It is clear that, in the current climate, the NHS faces recruitment challenges across the four nations in attracting people with the right skills from outwith the UK. Does the health secretary agree that comments such as those of Mr Sweeney’s UK party leader, Keir Starmer, do not reflect the welcoming nature of Scotland’s NHS, and that Brexit, which Labour now clearly backs, is a further barrier to recruitment in our NHS?
I do, but in fairness I do not think, knowing Paul Sweeney and Scottish Labour as I do, that those remarks from Keir Starmer reflect their position. I know from having spoken to many Scottish Labour members that they are pro-immigration, which is why I think that they would share my, and Emma Harper’s, disappointment at Keir Starmer’s very divisive rhetoric.
There are three elements to helping with our staffing crisis. One is increasing the pipeline of graduates; I have spoken about that already. The second is domestic recruitment. The third prong, which is really important, is overseas recruitment, and I make it clear on my behalf, and on the Scottish Government’s behalf, that the contribution of every overseas worker in our NHS is greatly valued.