Scottish Elections 2021: NHS needs more staff and politicians need to be honest about what the post-Covid health service can deliver – BMA Scotland

With a week to go to the Scottish Parliament elections and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the political approach to the future of the NHS has never been more important.

Given the events of this last year, voters will, I’m sure, be more mindful than ever of promises made about healthcare.

It’s no secret I have concerns about stoking expectation of what the NHS can deliver as we emerge from the pandemic, especially given all the talk of what it might be able to deliver in the next year.

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All that talk comes, unfortunately, without detail about how staffing, and hence activity, might be increased, and in such a short timescale too.

Many might, as a result, be under the impression the NHS can rapidly “return to normal” and deal with backlogs, but the reality is that Covid’s impact will be much longer lasting.

For over a year, the public have been very patient about pauses or delays to getting tests or treatment and, whilst asking for that understanding to continue a bit longer, we recognise how hard that is for anyone waiting.

But NHS staff, particularly those who have been on the pandemic frontline, cannot flick a switch and return to how we used to work for two key reasons: first, to keep people safe, we are working differently and will continue to need to for some time; and second, many NHS staff are simply exhausted. They have been through the most challenging year of their careers.

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Many NHS staff have been through the most challenging year of their careers as they have responded to the Covid pandemic, says Dr Lewis Morrison (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Without building in a chance for staff to recover, there is no way our NHS can recover. In fact, promising extra from the NHS risks harming those staff further. I speak from not only hearing the experiences of colleagues across the NHS, but also personally as a geriatrician, given the toll the pandemic has taken on so many of the elderly and their families.

All the extra work, months without respite, sometimes without proper rest facilities, breaks, or annual leave, has had a huge cumulative effect on staff. The health and well-being of the people who look after patients cannot be ignored – NHS staff remain under severe pressure even as Covid-19, thankfully, recedes and many are dealing with the physical and mental impact of the pandemic.

There is an urgent need for a proper plan to address the healthcare needs of those whose assessment or treatment has been delayed, and every single individual patient who has had to wait. But all those appointments, tests and treatments can only be delivered by NHS staff – not by promises.

So, I won’t apologise for demanding realism and honesty about what is possible now and in the short, medium, and long-term. It starts with much more support for NHS staff, and a real plan to increase staffing to what we need, not expecting an understaffed NHS to just do more.

That is the way to make NHS recovery a reality – for any further wave of Covid and all the other things healthcare must do.

Some may say that a truly honest discussion about the future of the NHS is not realistic but in this of all elections I would argue the contrary. If not now, then when?

Dr Lewis Morrison is a consultant geriatrician and chair of BMA Scotland

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