Covid Scotland: NHS 'barely coping' as pandemic enters calmer phase, says BMA

The NHS is “barely coping” with continued pressure and staffing shortages even as the Covid pandemic enters a calmer phase, the British Medical Association has said.

The warning comes after health secretary Humza Yousaf said the NHS has come “through the worst”, after repeated assertions the health service faced the most challenging period in its history in January.

Opposition politicians have warned the NHS is in “crisis” amid continued high demand, lengthening waiting lists and staff shortages.

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And the British Dental Association accused Mr Yousaf of “pretending NHS dentistry can magically return to business as usual” while in reality it is “light years” away from this.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of doctors’ union BMA Scotland, said the health service was not enjoying the same easing of pressure seen in dwindling Covid cases and increased optimism over Omicron.

Staff are facing exhaustion and burnout, and demands to catch up on waiting lists may result in staff leaving the NHS altogether, he said.

“While we do seem to be entering calmer waters in pandemic terms, the same cannot be said of the general pressures on our NHS and the ongoing impact this is having on exhausted staff,” Dr Morrison said.

"We need to be honest that we are barely able to cope with what is being routinely asked of the service – and that just driving staff harder in efforts to either ‘catch-up’ or boost capacity at this point is likely to be counterproductive and indeed push more of them out of the NHS altogether.

"Across both hospitals and GP practices we are still grappling with the ongoing need to work in a Covid safe way while at the same time struggling badly with a shortage of doctors and a high number of vacant posts.”

Dr Morrison called on the Government and others to be realistic about what to expect from the NHS.

"We need to guard very closely against simply believing that just because Covid is – for the time being – slightly less of a concern our NHS is going to recover in anyway quickly,” he said.

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"Instead we need everyone to continue to be open with the public about the challenges of demand outstripping capacity across both GP practices and hospitals, and urgently put a long-term plan for staffing our NHS in place.

"The immediate need is to protect the health of and retain current staff after the exhausting pressures of the last two years. Beyond that we need to make sure we are planning properly to deliver a sustainable workforce for the NHS well into the future.”

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The British Dental Association also warned of overly high expectations of a return to normal.

David McColl, chair of the British Dental Association's Scottish Dental Practice Committee, said: "Ministers are still trying to pretend NHS dentistry can magically return to business as usual in a matter of months."The reality is capacity is still light years from where it was and pulling the plug on needed support will have real consequences for practices across Scotland.

"By failing to listen to this profession, the Scottish Government has headed down a road that could destroy this service. Until they show a willingness to change course, services millions depend on will remain at risk."

Asked about pressure on the NHS, Mr Yousaf told BBC’s Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Monday that “we are through the worst”.

He said: “I think we’re through the worst of it.

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“I definitely think the last few weeks of December and the first few weeks of January – that five to six-week period – was probably the worst period and the most intense pressure the health service has ever come under in its 73-year existence.

“That’s not coming from me, that’s coming from people who have worked in the health service telling me, who have been working there for decades and decades.

"While we’re through perhaps the worst of it, we should also say that there is still significant pressure on the health service.

“That pressure comes from the continued number of Covid patients … they are just under 1,000.”

He added: “It also comes from the cumulative impact of almost two years of a pandemic and having to catch up with with that significant backlog.”

Opposition politicians raised fresh concerns about an NHS “in crisis” on Monday.

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie told the BBC that workforce shortages "haven't been addressed for years" and services remain under pressure.

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"What we have seen is waiting lists getting longer, cancelled operations up and real challenges for people,” she said.

"One in nine of the population of Scotland is stuck on a waiting list and there is no sign of catch-up or recovery.

"So whilst we would all want the NHS to keep people safe – and the staff work incredibly hard – remobilising the NHS has to be a key priority. At the moment, that simply isn't happening."

Dr Sandesh Gulhane, Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, said the current pressures showed a lack of planning before the pandemic.

"What this all points to is no planning, knee-jerk reaction making then not following through,” he said.

"At the height of the pandemic, we needed to do things to protect the public and protect our global health. But it has come at a cost.

"We have to understand we were saving lives, but it was coming with unintended consequences of mental health breakdown and also our economy not doing as well.

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"As the pandemic progressed, it was quite clear that decisions were being made badly.”

He added: "This isn't all pandemic-made. We have a complete lack of job planning for doctors and nurses."

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