The remark, made during the BBC Radio Scotland interview, produced a wave of justified outrage from opposition politicians.
Conservative public health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said such “reckless messaging could put lives at risk”; Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton pointed out that “encouraging people not to seek treatment is a huge gamble”; and Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie accused the SNP of causing an ambulance service crisis.
The number of listeners who would delay calling 999 when faced with a genuine emergency simply because of Yousaf’s words might not be particularly high, but even so he may now wish he had given the long answer. While he did advise calling 999 if “absolutely critical”, it's the soundbite that people will remember.
Few of us would emerge well if judged on every off-the-cuff error of tone, but his comment was also an admission about the seriousness of the situation at the Scottish Ambulance Service, with the average wait for an ambulance now at a frightening six hours.
On its Twitter page, the service has a pinned tweet from August 26, which says: “We're facing a period of significant and sustained pressure on our services.” An explanatory video is being promoted with the hashtag #Useuswisely. “Call NHS24 on 111, or call your GP if during the day, unless the situation is life-threatening, in which case call 999 right away.” This is perhaps the message that Yousaf was attempting to convey as he sought to relieve the pressure.
But it is the Health Secretary’s job to make sure that the NHS in Scotland is run efficiently and well, not to discourage its use.
When he promised that “whatever money I can find, additional resources I can find to help the NHS, I can promise you that will all be spent to tackle what will be a challenging autumn and winter”, it sounded panicked, rather than carefully planned.
However, the crisis may raise more fundamental questions than that of Yousaf’s competency. In a world where Covid remains a lasting threat, the NHS would surely need significantly more resources and it may be time to start working out how they will be found.