Leaders: Waiting list suppression returns to haunt Sturgeon

HOSPITAL waiting lists are a potent political issue with the power to break political careers.

So it is unsurprising that the opposition has seized on the latest Audit Scotland report as a way of attacking deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who until September last year was Scotland’s cabinet secretary for health.

The report centres on patients who were listed as being “socially unavailable” – because of holiday or work commitments, for example – for operations and were therefore removed from the official waiting list figures. This practice was found in 2011 to have been widely abused by Lothian health board in a bid to suppress waiting lists, but the Audit Scotland findings seem to suggest the practice was far more widespread.

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The report is a damning one, making the serious point that public faith and trust in the NHS has been damaged as a consequence. This is an extremely regrettable state of affairs. What is clear is that the way individual boards used the “socially unavailable” get-out varied considerably from area to area and from discipline to discipline, with some 
blatant anomalies.

Targets in the NHS – and also in other areas of the public sector such as class sizes and the number of policemen on the beat – are always contentious. Tony Blair’s New Labour was swept to power promising voters a range of targets would be met, and ten years later the SNP also gained office on the back of some eye-catching commitments.

But the experience in the NHS and elsewhere has been that officials spend so much time trying to meet their targets, by whatever means, that these are achieved to the detriment of other aspects of the service.

Specific targets have since fallen out of favour in political circles. But there is still, in the general public at large, a desire to keep our key frontline services under scrutiny as a means of checking on their performance.

Some target-setting to achieve this seems inevitable. After all, we need some way of making sure our politicians are making good on the manifesto commitments on which we elected them.

All the more important, then, that the statistics on which we base these judgments are sound and reliable. That has plainly not been the case.

It is not difficult to figure out why the opposition has grabbed this opportunity to attack Ms Sturgeon – she is, after all, the public face of the SNP’s independence campaign, the decision having been made that she is a better recruiting sergeant than her boss, Alex Salmond.

But impartial observers say she handled the initial revelations about Lothian’s waiting lists in a firm and commendable manner. It may turn out that she is being unfairly targeted here.

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If, however, it does turn out to be the case that the practice is still prevalent within the Scottish NHS, both she and her successor, Alex Neil, will have serious questions to answer.

Panda push-ups prepare for big night

SERIOUS naturalists often despair at the tendency of us humans to anthropomorphise members of the animal kingdom. So, an emperor penguin is said to have a regal bearing, a parrot has a cheeky demeanour and an owl is invariably seen as being wise.

These scientists might as well get used to it. We just can’t help it.

Take the case of the pictures we publish today of Yang Guang, the male panda at Edinburgh Zoo, doing a handstand. There is a very good zoological reason for this –pandas require good upper body strength to be able to mate, and so in the weeks before the female coming into her short period of fertility, the male exercises to build up his strength.

It is, however, impossible to think about this without anthropomorphising Yang Guang’s training regime.

Is he not, after all, just like any other young man getting ready for a Saturday night encounter with the ladies? Doing a few press-ups to try to achieve that elusive pec definition, while examining himself in the bedroom mirror?

In his head, is there perhaps a panda equivalent of a Barry White song playing in his head – possibly Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe – as he readies himself? Is that a dab of eau de bamboo we see him dabbing behind his hairy ears?

You can already see the zoologists rolling their eyes, resignedly preparing for more of the same as the breeding window approaches. We haven’t even started on his would-be girlfriend Tian Tian yet.

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Oh, how they must wish Tian Tian gets pregnant soon. At least the comparisons with mums-to-be from the world of celebrity – not to mention royalty – will make a refreshing change.