Professor Derek Bell said the rapid rise in cases combined with a spell of severe weather had led to emergency care facing the biggest pressures it had seen in a decade.
His comments came as NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGCC) revealed that 149 elective operations had been postponed this week due to winter pressures in the form of the flu, respiratory infections and norovirus, and NHS Lothian said it had deferred 130 surgical procedures. Latest figures show flu cases have doubled in a week and are now four times the rate of the same period last year.
The news comes the day after it was revealed that a Scots teenager had died of pneumonia after being rushed to hospital suffering from flu.
Bethany Walker, from Applecross in the Highlands, died a week ago as flu put pressure on health services across the UK.
In August last year, health secretary Shona Robison announced a new initiative aimed at cutting NHS waiting times after statistics showed an increase in the number of people waiting too long for treatment.
At the time, the data showed the 18-week referral to treatment target was met for 84.8 per cent of patients.
This reduced to 81 per cent in the latest figures which run to the end of September, well below the Scottish government’s own 90 per cent target – which has not been met since June 2014.
Professor Bell, chairman of the Academy of Scottish Royal Colleges and Specialist Societies, was chosen to lead the government’s new elective access collaborative programme.
He had previously led the National Unscheduled Care Improvement Team, which the Scottish Government said had brought Scotland’s A&E waiting times up to the best in the UK.
The professor said the recent spell of “high activity” in accident and emergency departments could have an impact on efforts to reduce waiting times for other operations.
He said: “In terms of this winter, it has been one of the poorest for some time, maybe a decade.
“The issue we then have in relation to the impact of emergency care on planned care is how quickly we recover from the winter. The longer the flu season goes on, the longer poor weather conditions persist, the greater the impact of that will be.”
Professor Bell said he had not seen figures for cancelled operations and the full impact would not be known until figures were released at the end of this month.
He added: “In England there is a very different edict about cancelling everything so emergency care can carry on, so at least in Scotland at the moment we are trying to do both at once.”
Professor Bell’s expert group on waiting times was tasked with bringing improvements by spring this year.
He said he was focusing on how to “maximise” improvement rather than concentrating on strict timescales.
“Timescales for that this year may be longer because of the winter we have just had,” he said.
Opposition parties were quick to slam the Scottish Government over their handling of the health crisis.
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “We are seeing absolutely shocking scenes. The SNP have let problems in the health service build up and so when something like the latest flu outbreak happens, services are already stretched. The British Medical Association warned this week that situation should not be dismissed as ‘the inevitable increase in pressure that winter brings’.
“Patients are enduring these conditions as a direct result of the actions of this SNP government. We need to see the First Minister and the health secretary deliver a clear plan of action for addressing these winter woes.”
Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “The postponement of operations is another ramification of this winter’s flu epidemic. The waiting times for treatment in NHS Scotland are already far too long and this will only make the problem worse. The SNP government has been warned for months about the challenges it would face this winter, yet it seems to have been completely ill-equipped. The Nationalists are in sole charge of health, they cannot point the finger at anyone else.”
Labour health spokesperson Anas Sarwar said: “This is a stark warning from one of Scotland’s leading medical experts and shows the extent of the pressure on our hardworking NHS staff. Clearly lessons have to be learned from this winter and Shona Robison must consider what should be done next year to boost the take up of vaccinations.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Although the NHS is facing a challenging winter, we have not sanctioned a blanket cancellation of planned operations as has happened in NHS England. This is thanks to winter contingency planning with health boards, supported by an extra £22.4 million from the Scottish Government for winter and unscheduled care pressures.”