NHS (Delays in Accessing Treatment)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 8 February 2024.

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Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

2. I join colleagues in paying our respects and passing on our condolences to the family of Keith Rollinson. He was a much-loved member of his community. I know from my family in Elgin how deeply wounded and hurt the community in Elgin is feeling over this period.

I also echo the comments that have been made about sending our thoughts and best wishes to King Charles and his loved ones. We hope that His Majesty makes a full and speedy recovery.

After months of Humza Yousaf battling to keep Michael Matheson in his job, today the health secretary has finally resigned. That will make the headlines today, but the crisis in our national health service has been 17 years in the making. Humza Yousaf might hope that swapping one failing Scottish National Party minister for another will solve the problems, but it will not.

I want to ask about the real-life consequences of the Government’s failure. Although the Government pretends that there is no crisis and that it has everything under control, that is not the experience of patients across the country. For many people, delays in accessing treatment can be fatal. Can the First Minister tell Parliament how many people called an ambulance last year but died before they could reach an accident and emergency department?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I do not have that figure in front of me, but I can say that a significant chunk of the winter funding that we announced was to recruit additional staff to the Scottish Ambulance Service.

I take real exception to Anas Sarwar’s characterisation of the situation as one in which nobody in the Government understands the real challenges that the NHS is under. We do. In fact, we are the ones who brought forward the recovery plan that is helping the NHS to recover. That is why there has been a reduction in the number of out-patients who have been waiting longest—those who have been waiting two years or more. That figure has reduced by almost 70 per cent. The number of in-patients waiting more than two years has been reduced by more than 25 per cent.

There is not a single person on the this front bench who does not understand the significant challenges for the NHS. That is why we are ensuring additional resources for the Scottish Ambulance Service. I would be happy to write to Anas Sarwar with the details of what we are doing to tackle the far-too-long ambulance waiting times across the country.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

That answer proves how much Humza Yousaf has his head in the sand. He talks about a recovery plan, but waiting lists have gone up since he published his recovery plan, and more than 800,000 of our fellow Scots are on NHS waiting lists while he dithers around looking for a decent statistic in his book. He needs to wake up to the reality that is faced by far too many Scots.

The answer to the question that I asked is that there were more than 12,000 people last year for whom an ambulance was called but who died before reaching hospital. That figure is up from just over 7,100 in 2019, which is an increase of more than 70 per cent in just four years. Many of those people might have survived if an ambulance had reached them sooner or if they had been admitted to hospital more quickly. That is the real-world consequence of the SNP’s incompetence and its failure to get to grips with the crisis in our NHS.

Here is another example. Back when Humza Yousaf was health secretary, the Government promised that all 150,000 women who had been wrongly excluded from cervical screening would be contacted by August 2021. More than two and a half years later, 65,000 women are still waiting to have their cases reviewed and to hear whether they are at risk. Why has the Government failed those women?

The First Minister:

Anas Sarwar rightly raises a couple of important issues, but when he interrogates issues in the health service, he talks about the past four years without giving any recognition to something quite significant that happened in the past four years: there was a global pandemic, which was the biggest shock that the NHS has faced in its 75-year existence. NHS services in Labour-run Wales, in Conservative-run England and in SNP-run Scotland are all facing really significant challenges because of that global pandemic. Anas Sarwar cannot simply say that things have deteriorated in four years without giving any context whatsoever. It is quite something for Anas Sarwar to say that things should have got better in the midst of a global pandemic.

Regarding current waiting lists, there is no suggestion from me that we should do anything other than focus on reducing those waiting times. I can look at the throughput of operations performed. In the past year, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of operations performed, compared with the previous 12 months, and a more than 15 per cent increase, compared with the 12 months before that. There is no doubt that too many people in Scotland are waiting. We are working to reduce that number, where we can.

I can give Anas Sarwar more detail in writing about the women who might have been affected by issues with cervical cancer screening. Having done an initial audit, NHS boards reached out to women who were deemed to be most at risk and have taken the appropriate action, where necessary. I am more than happy to write to Anas Sarwar with more detail, but it would be incorrect to suggest that they are at risk, or at high risk. There has been a focus on the women who were impacted and whom clinicians believe to be at the highest risk of cervical cancer.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I am honestly gobsmacked by the First Minister’s outrageous answer. He says that there is no evidence that those women are at high risk, but that is why their cases are being reviewed. Three women have died while waiting for that review and 65,000 women still have not been processed by the review. I think that he should look seriously at what is actually happening in the national health service that he presides over, because the reality is that those women, and too many other people who need the NHS, are being failed by an incompetent SNP Government. The result is that A and E delays get worse, waiting lists grow, staff burn out and patients’ lives are put at risk.

The Government would rather deny its incompetence than face up to the problem. Its financial mismanagement is further threatening front-line NHS services. It would rather continue with a culture of secrecy than learn the lessons of its failures.

Whoever this weak First Minister chooses to be the next health secretary, is not it the case that we need more than a change of health secretary, and that we need a change from this failing and incompetent SNP Government?

The First Minister:

Anas Sarwar has completely mischaracterised what I said. As he knows—I am happy to provide him with more detail, if he does not—the review of cervical screening exclusions had two parts to it. There was the initial review of 1,500 records, which was completed in 2021, and a much wider review of all exclusions from the programme, which is very much on-going and covers about 150,000 individuals. I am more than happy to provide Anas Sarwar with the full details of the progress that is being made.

Under this Government’s stewardship of the NHS there has been record staffing, and we have the best-paid staff anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have not lost a single day to strike action, unlike Labour-run Wales and Conservative-run England. We are making a dent in the longest waits for people who were impacted by the global pandemic.

What does not help recovery is the devastating cuts to the budget by the Conservatives. It would be really helpful if Anas Sarwar was able to confirm that UK Labour, if it forms the next UK Government, would reverse those Tory cuts. What we have had from Labour, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, however, is absolute confirmation that they will not reverse Tory spending cuts.

The First Minister:

I am afraid that, while we currently face headwinds of austerity from the Conservative Government, it does not look like the situation will change under a UK Labour Government.