The National Health Service is in crisis. Hardly a week seems to go by without some kind of bad news.
This is true in both Scotland and the rest of the UK, which suggests the problems here are not simply the result of the policies pursued by the Scottish Government. An ageing population and medical advances mean the NHS now has more patients to treat and more ways to treat them, but its finances have not risen to enable it to cope in the way we have come to expect.
The volume of public complaints is increasing, while it is also clear that many staff have too much to do, leading to falling morale and rising stress. No wonder there are significant recruitment problems. This vicious cycle – of substandard service, complaints, belt-tightening and increased workloads – may not end well for those who value a health service free at the point of delivery.
So there is no question that the job of Health Secretary is a particularly tough one, but there is now a serious question as to whether Shona Robison is up to the task.
Yesterday saw a terminally ill cancer patient, Margaret Goodman, who had to wait more than two hours for an ambulance after collapsing, join calls by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for Robison to resign. One of the SNP’s leading lights and an apparently capable politician, Robison still has to carry the can for the NHS’s overall performance – almost regardless of whether she is making the situation better or worse.
Nicola Sturgeon and Robison are close and the First Minister will be reluctant to discard a key ally, but realpolitik may ultimately decide her fate. If the complaints rise to a level that starts to cause real damage to the SNP’s reputation, she may have to go. But if the current political storm blows over and the NHS manages a few relatively untroubled months, she may survive.
The SNP will be hoping extra money from its controversial decision to increase income tax in Scotland will help, but it is likely to be not much more than a drop in the ocean.
While the Scottish Conservatives have not called for Robison’s resignation, they have been, like the other opposition parties, repeatedly highlighting problems in the NHS. One thing this demonstrates is that there are votes in this issue.
So the take-home message for Sturgeon from all this should be a resounding one: the people of Scotland are crying out for the NHS’s problems to be fixed.