Euan McColm: Ailing NHS gives the lie to SNP ‘guardians’

The SNP has repeatedly blamed Westminster for any flaws in Scotland's NHS. Picture: PA
The SNP has repeatedly blamed Westminster for any flaws in Scotland's NHS. Picture: PA
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THESE days, it’s not enough for a politician to pledge support for the NHS, it’s also essential to insist the opposition plans to destroy it. If you vote for us, we’ll cut waiting times and hire more doctors. If you vote for them, they’ll turn off Aunt Claire’s life support machine.

The SNP has been especially adept at persuading voters that only it can protect the NHS from the assorted atrocities which other parties plan to inflict upon it. The nationalists’ appropriation from Scottish Labour of the role of guardians of the health service is one of the most audacious political smash and grabs of recent years.

The greatest threat to the NHS is a neglectful government at Holyrood

Speaking at her party’s conference in Aviemore in 2007, the recently appointed deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, challenged Labour to support the SNP’s plan to introduce free prescriptions, while evoking the memory of Aneurin Bevan, Labour’s post-war health minister. It was shameless and effective. The NHS may have been a great Labour achievement, the SNP conceded, but that Labour party was long gone. If you wanted a Scottish NHS run on its founding principle of health care for all, then you had to vote Scottish Nationalist.

And, for a while, the SNP did a decent job of appearing to know what it was doing when it came to the health service. It certainly knew how to use it to its advantage. The free prescriptions policy (a middle class subsidy branded as a principled act of socialism) was a vote winner.

The NHS inherited by the SNP had just undergone considerable reform, with specialist services concentrated in key treatment centres and failing units closed down. Since 2007, however, the nationalists have been keener to manage than shake-up the NHS.

Yes, of course, there’s been lots of rhetoric about caring for the service, but no real action. The SNP has played its free prescriptions joker whenever opposition parties have dared to criticise the party’s stewardship of the NHS, but there’s more to ensuring the health service thrives than that particular giveaway.

This week, an Audit Scotland report shows that opposition attacks on the Scottish Government’s running of the service are entirely legitimate.

The public spending watchdog looked at the performance of the NHS in 2014/15 and found that the NHS had failed to meet seven out of nine key waiting time targets while problems around staffing levels had intensified.

And these were not new problems: previous reports have highlighted concerns around waiting times and staffing. But under the SNP, things have got worse.

It must be said that the Scottish Nationalists have been entirely shameless when it comes to the NHS. Despite those earlier Audit Scotland reports, the SNP has repeatedly blamed Westminster for any flaws.

And, during the referendum campaign last year, the SNP went even further, arguing that a No vote would lead to the privatisation by Westminster of the Scottish NHS. This was, in fact, nonsense: health is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the greatest threat to the NHS is not, as the SNP wanted us to believe, a morally bankrupt UK establishment but a neglectful government at Holyrood.

Auditor general Caroline Gardner says it is now urgent that fundamental changes are made. New ways to deliver healthcare should be developed and there needs to be a national approach to workforce planning.

More damning is the disturbing fact that the health budget has decreased by 0.7 per cent since 2008/09. This is something that the SNP allowed to happen while failing to pass on funds whose release was triggered by spending on the NHS in England.

Audit Scotland’s disturbing conclusion is that the Scottish NHS cannot survive without intervention now. Unless staffing is improved and funding restored, not only will the SNP’s promises on waiting times come to nothing, the service will decline even further.

This state of affairs is, by any standard, dreadful news for Scotland and the sole blame lies at the feet of the SNP.

The First Minister was Health Secretary between 2007-12 and she can’t escape a degree of responsibility for the state of our NHS. It certainly seems rather careless to have exerted so much effort in becoming the guardians of the health service only to then neglect it. The Scottish Government’s free prescriptions policy may have been popular but it doesn’t compensate for a lack of action across the health service.

And it is not just in the area of health that the SNP finds itself policy deficient. What is the Scottish Government’s clear and simple policy on energy? We know it’s anti-nuclear and wary of fracking so what is it doing to meet challenges over energy provision? What is its plan for the economy? Again, there are slogans and platitudes but not much in the way of concrete policy.

The recent departure of the SNP’s communications director, Kevin Pringle, has exacerbated circumstances. Without his guidance, the party’s narrative has been weaker and it has allowed itself to be put on the back foot after poor handling of the contro­versy over mortgage deals struck by the now-suspended MP, Michelle Thomson.

The SNP has always done a lot with a little. A handful of key figures – Sturgeon, her predecessor Alex Salmond, her deputy John Swinney, and some talented officials – created the party’s reputation for competence.

But Salmond’s a law unto himself these days, and Pringle’s departure leaves a large gap in the team.

The First Minister has recently kicked the idea of a second independence referendum into the middle distance. Hopefully, one consequence of this will be a return to debate about public services rather than the constitution.

Sturgeon said last week that she hoped Scots voting in the 2016 Holyrood election would judge her on the SNP’s record. The cocky implication was that the record in question was perfectly faultless, a model of wise and compassionate government.

But the truth, as the Audit Scotland report makes abundantly clear, is that the SNP’s record is far from perfect. The First Minister should remember that voters notice this kind of thing. «