Leader comment: Can anyone cure our ailing NHS?

The NHS in Scotland is facing arguably the greatest crisis since it was set up nearly 70 years ago. Rising demands from an ageing population and expensive new medical treatments are stretching health service finances to breaking point and something will eventually have to give.

There have been calls for health secretary Shona Robison to resign, but problems in the health service run deeper than a ministerial appointment.
There have been calls for health secretary Shona Robison to resign, but problems in the health service run deeper than a ministerial appointment.

Scotland could continue along the current path which will inevitably lead to a gradual deterioration of services, plummeting staff morale and soaring public discontent. Audit Scotland’s report today makes clear this process is well underway.

Private patients could be used to help plug the gap. In England, a number of NHS trusts are already part-privatised. For example, the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, a world-leading centre for cancer, made more than 30 per cent of its income last year from treating private patients keen to take advantage of its specialist consultants’ expertise. Some experts fear a gradual switch towards private work will ultimately lead to an American-style healthcare system in which the poorest cannot afford treatment.

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The situation seems beyond making efficiency savings here and there, so the only remaining option would be to pump in a substantial amount of extra money.

But the Scottish Government already spends some 43 per cent of its budget on health and there seems to be little scope to transfer signficant funds from other big spending departments like education.

So, what are the chances of a “tartan tax” hike to save our health service? Despite polls that occasionally show the public’s willingness to pay a little more to fund the NHS, voters can feel differently once they enter the ballot box. And any government that raises taxes can expect to be repeatedly pilloried by most in the opposition ranks.

For the Nationalists, a tax rise would be doubly dangerous because of the political necessity to demonstrate that Scotland has what it takes to become a thriving, independent country. If Scots ended up paying higher taxes than people south of the border, Unionists would have a field day.

Some have called for the Health Secretary Shona Robison to resign, but the same structual problems would remain and the SNP would still be stuck in the same trap.

So the crisis is likely to intensify to the detriment of us all, unless someone of considerable political courage can break the deadlock.