Praising the response of health and social care staff – from consultant to cleaner to carer – “as “extraordinary”, Jeane Freeman told MSPs that the health service was ramping up its capacity in intensive care, in testing and in numbers of staff, with 3300 people having been in touch to join the NHS and care services.
She said the mobilisation plans of health boards were in place, with 50 new coronavirus assessment centres due to open this week.
She said the plans to double ICU capacity to 360 beds, by repurposing facilities and retraining staff was the “international standard response to a pandemic” but “given the scale of the challenge we are planning to quadruple our ICU capacity to over 700 as quickly as we possibly can.
“A pipeline of ventilators is slated to come to Scotland over the coming weeks to enable this increase. We are working with suppliers to do all we can so they can be brought here as quickly as humanly possible.”
She said despite the new stringent rules for society, Scotland would not “escape the impact" of the virus, and that the new community pathway for dealing with people who believe they have symptoms was now up and running.
People with symptoms should at first seek advice from NHS Inform and stay at home for seven days, but if their symptoms deteriorate they should call 111 to be assessed by a senior clinician.
She added: “In some cases patients will need to be seen face-to-face and Covid-19 assessment centres are being rapidly deployed across the country with an initial 50 planned this week. This new dedicated pathway frees up our GP service to continue delivering important non-Covid care to patients.”
Ms Freeman also told MSPs that the government was working with Cosla to prioritise social care support to the most vulnerable, with a “triage centre” delivering urgent supplies of protective clothing and equipment such as masks, aprons and gloves, for staff.
“We’re working to procure and distribute the necessary supplies of the types and levels of PPE required to safeguard frontline health and social care workers and we now have clear distribution work streams.”
On stepping up testing, she said laboratories would be freed from any non-essential work and added: “As well as our own work to rapidly scale up testing in Scotland we are working closely across the UK to increase testing capacity significantly and there's an announcement due on that shortly.”
She said there had been a “tremendous response” to the call for nurses and other health professionals to return to the health service, with “nearly 3300 individual queries", that final year nursing and midwifery students will be put on placement to undertake paid work and compete their degrees while final year allied health professionals and biomedical science students will complete clinical hours then go on to the register to be deployed in the health service.
“We cannot have barriers to staff working in the NHS," she said. “Last week I said I would act if I could to remove parking charges from those PFI car parks, so from Monday 30th March they will be removed from Ninewells hospital in Dundee and Edinburgh royal infirmaries for the next three months.”