Nicola Sturgeon has admitted Scotland’s hospitals are “almost full” but her plan to tackle the NHS crisis with extra call center staff and care home beds has been criticized by doctors as insufficient.
At a press conference in Edinburgh on Monday, the first minister said the health service was under “truly unprecedented” pressure, while one of its senior officials admitted the confusion was costing lives.
However, doctors’ leaders warned that the package of measures unveiled to ease the crisis, including funding more care home beds to free up hospital capacity, was unlikely to be enough to stop the “shattering” situation that has unfolded in wards and emergency departments.
Political opponents accused Ms Sturgeon of trying to avoid blame for the emergency as she questioned the testimony of frontline doctors who warned that the Scottish NHS was no longer able to provide safe care.
She has also repeatedly suggested that factors beyond her control, such as Brexit and a spike in winter infections, were to blame, rather than government failures.
Hundreds of patients spend 12 hours or more each day in Scotland’s A&E departments, while the level of bed blocking – meaning patients are well enough to leave hospitals but have nowhere else to go – is also at record highs.
Ms Sturgeon said more cash would be made available to hire extra staff for the NHS 24 helpline, that development of a new health app would be accelerated and extra cash would be available for extra beds in care homes. Health boards will be able to implement general cancellations of non-urgent surgeries if they choose to do so.
However, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the extra care home accommodation would be useless if there were no extra staff, and social care faced a recruitment crisis.
Sturgeon revealed that the hospital bed occupancy rate was over 95 percent last Wednesday. An 85 percent occupancy rate is generally seen as the maximum level before patients are put at risk.
“Scotland’s NHS is not just being pushed to its limits – in many places it is well beyond that,” said Iain Kennedy, chairman of BMA Scotland. “At 95 per cent bed occupancy in our hospitals is simply unsustainable when it comes to providing the safe and effective care that patients need every day, both in the ER and across all wards.
“Many doctors remain convinced that the Scottish Government’s practical response matches the vast scale of the problems facing the NHS.”
Ms Sturgeon insisted that while the NHS will have to “adjust and change”, she did not believe it was unsustainable in its current form.
Leaked minutes of a meeting of NHS Scotland bosses last year showed they privately discussed introducing charges for affluent patients, a suggestion rejected by the prime minister.
However, she suggested she was pessimistic about avoiding a planned strike action by nurses and midwives, saying there was no extra cash to fund a pay settlement that was rejected by some unions and forced upon staff.
Meanwhile, Graham Ellis, deputy chief medical officer, did not dispute the Royal College of Emergency Medicine’s estimate that 40 deaths a week in Scotland were due to delays in emergency services. “I think they are right in saying that there are consequences for delaying access to emergency care,” he said.
Colin Poolman, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, said the organization’s earlier warnings were “not heeded” and staffing shortages had left patients at risk.
He added: “In the longer term, an open and honest discussion is needed about the current level of investment and the new ways of working that will be required to meet the growing demands of Scottish health and care services.”
Ms Sturgeon said the need for hospital beds was driven by high flu levels, rising Covid infections and Strep A cases. Nearly 100,000 calls were made to the NHS 24 phone service over the Christmas and New Year period, the highest number in more than a decade.
Humza Yousaf, under fire from the health secretary Ms Sturgeon insisted on Monday, is doing a “very good job” and will provide further details on Tuesday about a new package of support measures at Holyrood.
Sandesh Gulhane, Scottish Tory health spokesman and GP, called Ms Sturgeon’s press conference a “PR exercise” that was “too little, too late”.
He added: “Nicola Sturgeon was full of sympathy for disappointed patients and warm words for overburdened staff – but there were few concrete measures to turn things around.
“She and Humza Yousaf continue to deny the fact that they were surprised by the extent of the demands on the NHS this winter, despite the fact that they were warned of what was coming well in advance.”