Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of desperate “deflection tactics” after blaming Brexit for dire staff shortages fuelling a treatment crisis enveloping Scotland’s NHS.
The First Minister admitted the Scottish health service was “under more pressure than at any time in our lifetimes” as a result of Covid, but refused to say it was in a “crisis”.
In an interview coinciding with the start of this weekend’s SNP conference, she said there were staff shortages across the NHS after Brexit led to the end of free movement from the Continent.
But opposition parties said her remarks were “shameless” as the staffing problems dated back more than a decade to Ms Sturgeon’s tenure as Health Secretary, when she cut the number of student nurses.
Vacancies within the NHS have reached “record levels”, with new figures showing that more than 500 consultant positions and almost 5,000 jobs in nursing and midwifery are lying empty.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said Scotland entered the pandemic in March last year with 15 per cent of consultant positions unfilled and there was currently a shortage of around 800 GPs.
Red Cross drafted in
Ms Sturgeon’s denial came the day after the Unite union said sick Scots who called 999 for an ambulance faced an average six-hour wait until they were admitted to hospital thanks to a shortage of accident-and-emergency beds.
This had led to ambulances carrying sick patients being stacked up outside A&E departments for up to seven hours, waiting for a bed to become free. During this time they were each unable to respond to three emergency calls.
It emerged that the Red Cross was drafted in to Scotland’s biggest hospital to provide emergency aid as ambulances queued up in car parks for hours.
The Daily Record reported that volunteers were handing out tea, coffee and biscuits to paramedics, patients and relatives at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.
The number of hospitalisations increased again yesterday by 49 to 977 and the number of children being admitted is at its highest since the pandemic started.
Focus remains on independence
But the first day of the SNP’s virtual conference instead focused on independence, with the party disclosing it had started work on a temporary constitution for a separate Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon announced this week she has asked her civil servants to start drawing up a “detailed” prospectus for the referendum she wants to stage by autumn 2023.
Pressed by BBC Radio Scotland if the NHS was in crisis, she said: “This is a significant challenge for health services everywhere, that’s why we need to take the hard choices like vaccine certification, and why we need to invest in the health service, and why we have warned for a long time, and I’m not saying this is the key or principal driver of pressure in the health service, are staff shortages.
“We are seeing across our economy and in public services increasing staffing shortages because of Brexit.”
The Scottish Government last month published an NHS recovery plan to clear the huge treatment backlog during the pandemic with a promise to increase capacity by at least 10 per cent over the next five years.
But the BMA said the document failed to address the “huge vacancy crisis” afflicting many parts of the health service and warned that meeting the 10 per cent target with existing “exhausted” staff risked them quitting, making the shortages even worse.
Sturgeon has ‘no idea what’s going on at the frontline’
Interviewer Martin Geissler raised the concerns of a doctor who had said the health service had been struggling for a decade and it would take “more than ten years to get things right”.
Asked how she could blame Brexit, Ms Sturgeon said: “I wasn’t blaming Brexit. You put to me the issue of staff shortages and I was saying, rightly, one of the many factors putting pressures on our health service right now is staff shortages, and I’m afraid Brexit is the driving reason for that.”
But Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Public Health Minister, said: “Nicola Sturgeon clearly has no idea what’s going on at the frontline of our NHS. My colleagues are swamped and health services across the board are in crisis.
“The First Minister is in denial about the scale of the problems. Everything from GP to ambulance to A and E services are overwhelmed. The deflection tactics are a disgrace.”
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said: “Nicola Sturgeon has launched a desperate bid to abandon any and all responsibility for the mess she made of NHS workforce planning.
“Her shameless comments tell us everything we need to know about the SNP’s priorities – this is a party more concerned with hiding from blame than fixing problems.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon dismissed some criticism of her controversial reforms allowing people to self-identify their gender as “not valid”.
Women’s groups have warned predatory men could exploit the change to access safe spaces such as toilets and changing rooms.
But the First Minister said: “We should focus on the real threats to women, not the threats that, while I appreciate that some of these views are very sincerely held, in my view, are not valid.”
She refused to be drawn on whether ministers who opposed the legislation would be permitted to vote against it but noted that collective responsibility usually applies.
Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary and a devout Christian, is among the senior SNP figures to have urged the Scottish government not to “rush” into “changing the definition of male and female”.
Meghan Gallacher, a Tory MSP, said: “It’s wrong for Nicola Sturgeon to overlook the many valid concerns that women have about the erosion of their rights.”