National Health Service Treatment

First Minister’s Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at on 20 June 2024.

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Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

Our national health service faces a national crisis in what is known as corridor care, where patients are treated on trolleys in corridors because there are simply not enough beds in wards for them. This week, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine published a new analysis that found that, on average, 45 per cent of patients who were treated in our emergency departments did not have access to a private cubicle. In the RCEM’s words,

“when no cubicle is available, patients are treated in other areas: trolleys in corridors, cars, the waiting room, relative rooms, plaster rooms.”

I ask members to imagine themselves, or one of their loved ones, lying on a trolley for hours with no privacy and no dignity, just pain and distress. After 17 years of this Scottish National Party Government, why has corridor care become such a commonplace?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As Mr Sarwar will know, the issues and challenges in the national health service today are driven by a number of factors. One of them is the increase in demand in the aftermath of Covid, which the national health service is doing its level best to try to address.

We are wrestling also with the challenges of our hospitals being significantly congested because of the challenges around delayed discharge. Those challenges come largely from the fact that we do not have enough social care packages available in the community, because we do not have enough people in the workforce to deliver the volume of social care that is required. That is a consequence of the loss of population because of the loss of free movement under Brexit. The issues that we are wrestling with are significant and acute, and the Government and our health boards are focused on addressing that.

Finally, I say to Mr Sarwar that, if anybody is treated in the fashion that he has recounted and if anybody has that experience—I have seen media reports this morning of a particular case at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital—I apologise unreservedly to them, and I assure members of the public and their families that the Government is doing all that it can to address that circumstance.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I have been coming to the chamber week after week for the past three years, and week after week we have been hearing apologies from SNP First Ministers. We then get apologies the week after and the week after that, and nothing changes in people’s lived experience.

Let us be clear: long waits cost lives. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that, for every 72 patients who wait over eight hours in accident and emergency departments, there will be one excess death. That is a death that could have been avoided if the patient had been treated on time. That means that, so far this year, more than 1,000 Scots have died who could have been saved had they been treated on time. That is 1,000 avoidable deaths of people so far this year alone, and it is only June. Those are fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters, who died because they could not get their care on time. Why have those families been so badly let down by the SNP Government?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

In my earlier answer, I set out some of the issues that are driving that particular situation and I will repeat them: the increase in demand after Covid; the congestion in our hospitals, which now have in excess of 95 per cent occupancy, which is far too high and should be about 10 per cent lower for ordinary activity; and the absence of adequate social care capacity in the community, because we do not have enough social care workers to deliver social care packages. That is the explanation of the problem.

Mr Sarwar says that he comes here week after week to raise these issues. I know that he does, and he gets these answers, but what is required is that we take action. This Government has taken the action of increasing tax on higher earners in order to boost investment in the national health service. The national health service would have had less money available to it if this Government had not taken the hard decisions on tax.

The general election gives us an opportunity to do something about this. We could encourage more people into the labour force, which would require us to reintroduce freedom of movement, so that people can come to work in this country, or encourage more investment and take more investment decisions, such as ending austerity. However, Mr Sarwar’s party is proposing no answer to these issues. In fact, it is proposing the reverse by saying that it will maintain Brexit and austerity. That is not good enough—it is time for the Labour Party to act.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

If that is the best answer that a politician who has been in power for 17 years can give, he has to take a serious look in the mirror. In fact, it was John Swinney, as finance secretary, who cut local government and social care budgets across the country, so perhaps he should reflect on his own record, because the reality is that patients and staff have been failed and let down by this SNP Government.

A few weeks ago, the Royal College of Nursing reported on this issue, and it quoted a Scottish nurse, who said:

“We don’t complain for ourselves but for the patient. There are no screens to go round the patient. So, if they are being bed bathed or need a bed pan, you have to take a patient out of their bed space and move them into a corridor, then move the extra patient into the bed space to use the bed pan. It’s time consuming, there is not enough space in the rooms. It’s undignified for the patient.”

That unbearable situation is unfair to patients and staff.

First Minister, can you explain directly to that heartbroken nurse why you and your Government continue to let them down so badly?

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Members should always speak through the chair.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have explained the challenge and the difficulty. The Government has taken the action of increasing taxation for higher earners in order to invest more in the national health service than would have been the case had we just passed on the consequentials from United Kingdom funding. We have taken the hard decisions, and there was, of course, a time when Mr Sarwar would have supported us, but he has now U-turned on that position. As a consequence of what he said on Tuesday, he wants to cut the money that is available to the public finances.

Mr Sarwar is shaking his head at me. [ Interruption .]

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Sarwar obviously does not understand what he was saying at his press conference on Tuesday. The consequences of his stance will be to reduce public expenditure in Scotland. It is, quite simply, beyond credibility to come here and ask me to invest more money in the national health service, in order to tackle the issues that Mr Sarwar is concerned about, when he wants to cut public expenditure and any prospective incoming United Kingdom Government will also cut public expenditure.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

My answer to that nurse is that we must have an end to austerity, and she will not get that from the Labour Government.