Brian Wilson: Sturgeon must face reality over NHS

Nicola Sturgeon in action in the Holyrood chamber, watched by her colleagues on the SNP front-bench. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Sturgeon in action in the Holyrood chamber, watched by her colleagues on the SNP front-bench. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A BRIEF ENCOUNTER with First Minister’s Questions suggested that the most visible change under the revised management involves a new set of Chief Noddies who surround their leader.

It has become part of the Holyrood convention that those anointed to sit within camera range during this ritual must nod continuously in animated approval as if their jobs depended upon it, which they may well do.

We can only speculate on whether the deposed Chief Noddies, Messrs Russell and MacAskill, are still performing as enthusiastically from the gods.

Unsurprisingly, the state of the National Health Service in Scotland was the main focus of attention.

Nicola Sturgeon has a nippy mantra of her own, whatever the subject under discussion. It begins with the words: “I am not going to take lessons from …” There then follows a babble of statistics which may or may not have any validity or bearing on the subject in hand.

These comparators date back to when Labour and the Liberal Democrats ran Holyrood. As older readers will recall, this period ended in 2007. Jackie Baillie, who has performed rather well in her temporary role, made the relevant point neatly by recalling Ms Sturgeon’s own words from 2001: “A party that is now in its second term of office cannot avoid taking responsibility for its own failings.”

The First Minister seems to have abandoned this maxim. “I am not going to take lessons from…” is a poor response to matters of real and urgent concern; quite literally of life and death.

Furthermore, when she delivered her 2001 bon mot, the Labour-Lib-Dem administration was only two years and seven months into government at Holyrood. She is seven years and seven months in, the great majority of that time with ministerial responsibility for the NHS in Scotland. So maybe it is time for her to start “taking lessons” in how to exercise a little humility and suppress her partisan instincts when called to account over the real difficulties which exist within the NHS in Scotland.

In one particularly petulant passage, she jibed: “It would fit Labour better to stop criticising those who are working so hard in our NHS and get behind them.”

I have taken the trouble to read the transcript of these exchanges and cannot find one word of criticism of “those who are working so hard in our NHS” from Ms Baillie or anyone else. Perhaps one of Ms Sturgeon’s many press officers and special advisers can contradict me?

Or is it really Ms Sturgeon’s doctrine that anyone who raises serious questions about the workings of our NHS, or the possible failure of her administration to meet its responsibilities, is by definition “criticising those who work so hard in our NHS?” If so, she is guilty of using good people as a political shield for her own vanities.

Earlier this week, The Scotsman reported that morale was so low in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary that staff were “in tears” over their inability to provide patients with proper care due to “significant deficiencies” in the way it was run. The chairman and chief executive of NHS Grampian have resigned. Yet just before he was removed as health secretary, Ms Sturgeon’s successor in that role, Alex Neil, travelled to Aberdeen to announce that there was “no crisis” at the hospital.

Who, Ms Sturgeon might clarify, was on the side of “those who are working so hard in our NHS” in that instance – the minister who denied reality or those who fought to expose it? When the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland said that the Scottish Government “should have recognised the problems in NHS Grampian earlier and taken action to address them”, was she, too, guilty of “criticising those who work so hard in our NHS”? How ridiculous.

On the very day Ms Sturgeon was performing at Holyrood, yet another worrying report about current NHS conditions had been unveiled, this time about Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It was a shocker. Nobody who saw the images which were photographed in October of 2014 is likely to be remotely interested in some cobbled-together statistics from 2007. Debating-society point-scoring does not address the scandal of dangerous hygiene in a major Scottish hospital.

Personally, I have always been cautious about pinning blame on a minister for matters of which he or she could not reasonably be expected to have had first-hand knowledge. The more reasonable test of a minister’s competence and commitment lies in whether he or she takes action to ensure things are sorted, once a specific failing has been highlighted.

However, I have never noticed any such reticence on the part of the SNP in general or Ms Sturgeon in particular. Wherever there was the opportunity to wound a political opponent, however unfairly or unreasonably, she has always been an eager wielder of the knife. Now she is being asked to take responsibility for the chain of bad news stories about the NHS in Scotland, her chosen means of defence is attack. It doesn’t wash.

Another pretty shocking story involves the burgeoning cost of locum doctors in Scotland, hired through private agencies. This has more than doubled since 2010. In the Western Isles, where I live, one-third of the entire medical staff budget is spent on locums. It is a shambles to which there seems to be no strategic response. Scotland, the historic home of great medical schools, now blames an “international challenge” for our inability to train or retain doctors and specialists.

This is the kind of issue for which government and ministers should certainly be held accountable – especially after seven-and-a-half years in office. So, too, is the fact that NHS spending in Scotland has grown more slowly than in the rest of the UK because not all of the Barnett consequentials intended for the NHS have been used for this purpose. The SNP administration should not complain about being held accountable for its own priorities.

The people most keenly aware of where our NHS is creaking at the seams are those who work within it. Maybe they should be allowed to express themselves more freely and without fear of retribution. No amount of frenetic nodding will conceal the challenges that exist or exonerate a government which always tries to blame someone else, even in the face of the most compelling, contemporary evidence.