Caroline Lamb, NHS Scotland’s chief executive and director-general for Health and Social Care, gave evidence on winter planning to Holyrood’s health committee on Tuesday.
Health boards have been plagued by soaring accident-and-emergency (A&E) waiting times and increasing numbers of delayed discharges in recent months.
As the healthcare sector in Scotland recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, and battles the cost-of-living crisis, the issues facing hospitals are expected to become worse.
In her opening statement to the committee, Ms Lamb said the winter period would be “very difficult for people across the country”, as it presents challenges to staff and patients.
Conservative MSP Tess White asked if the chief executive was nervous the NHS would not be able to cope with the anticipated strain on the healthcare sector this winter.
Ms Lamb responded: “I think it would be foolish to be complacent as we go into what will be a very difficult winter.
“However, we have been involved in intensive planning with our NHS boards – and this is not new. We work alongside our boards and partners throughout the year.”
She continued: “We know that our NHS has a strong track record in the last two years of responding to unprecedented demands and pressures in the system.
“However, as I have said, we cannot be complacent.”
The vaccine programme, where certain groups will be offered a new Covid-19 booster jab, will be “absolutely critical” in limiting admissions and reducing staff absences, she said.
But acknowledging the issues the NHS has been grappling with in recent months, she said: “We do not underestimate the challenges going into this winter.
“We are heading into this winter with a situation where our hospitals are running at higher occupancy levels of their beds than we would ideally want to be in.”
To tackle the crisis, Ms Lamb said the NHS would be working to ensure people only attend hospitals when they absolutely need to, by improving care at home and minor injury treatments, as well as ensuring delayed discharges are reduced to clear up bed space.