Covid Scotland: Ambulance waiting times will ‘worsen across Scotland’ without investment

Ambulance waiting times in Scotland would worsen to well below targets and see fewer than 60 per cent of the most life-threatening calls responded to within eight minutes without significant investment, internal documents state.

The demand and capacity review undertaken by the service and obtained by the Scottish Liberal Democrats through Freedom of Information legislation has been revealed after the Scottish Government asked the British Army to provide military support to help deal with the pressure in the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS).

Nicola Sturgeon was also pressed last week in Holyrood around one patient who died after a 40-hour wait for an ambulance.

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The document includes a projection that lower risk patients in Edinburgh and Glasgow would wait almost an hour and a half for an ambulance should there be a lack of investment.

The Scottish Ambulance Service said investment is needed to ensure ambulance waiting times don't worsen.

Pressure on the Scottish Government to do more to improve the performance of the NHS increased last week amid high levels of Covid-19.

From today, care home residents will start receiving their booster jabs for Covid-19 alongside an annual flu jab, and from Tuesday frontline health workers will also be able to book an appointment for their booster.

It is part of the initial rollout of the booster programme which will see those most clinically vulnerable to Covid-19 receive an additional dose of the vaccine.

Children aged 12 to 15 will also be able to access their first vaccine dose at drop-in centres from Monday.

Reacting to the figures in the ambulance service report, Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, said it was up to the SNP to find a solution to the problems faced by the emergency service and the long waits should “haunt” ministers.

He said: “These projections from the ambulance service should result in an immediate and transformational injection of resource and capacity. And yet in the last week, the health secretary has attempted to pin the blame anywhere else.

“The stories of excruciating and sometimes fatal waits should haunt every member of this Scottish Government. They are a symptom of an overrun and understaffed ambulance service, ignored for too long by a government putting priorities elsewhere.

“They are not the result of a pandemic, and are certainly not the fault of members of the public who call for emergency care in desperation and with nowhere else to turn. This is a problem of the government’s own making, and it is theirs to fix. Time is up on their excuses."

The SAS summary document sets out four different options for dealing with demand expected for 2022.

One option – deemed the highest risk to the service – details how, without further investment, waiting times would continue to worsen.

It warns “status quo” would mean that just 59 per cent of patients with life-threatening conditions would be reached within eight minutes, well below the target of 75 per cent.

Lower risk patients in NHS Lothian and Greater Glasgow and Clyde would face an 82-minute average wait – the review states.

The document goes on to recommend additional investment of more than 450 ‘whole time equivalent’ employees and further internal changes to how the ambulance service operates to avoid waiting times deteriorating further.

Responding, the Scottish Ambulance Service said it was “pleased" the Scottish Government had agreed to fund that level of investment to the service.

A spokesperson said: “Our Demand and Capacity review looked at current versus predicted demand and how many staff and vehicles we'd need to meet those projections. Four options were submitted to the Scottish Government and we are pleased that they agreed to option four, our preferred option.

“It is currently being actioned on a phased basis with the aim of increasing resourcing by 458 frontline staff and we have welcomed £20 million investment from the Scottish Government for the first two years of this programme.”

Despite the increased pressure on the government, no ministers appeared on the weekly politics discussion show on the BBC, the Sunday Show, with the Scottish Conservatives criticising the government for being “in hiding”.

Stephen Kerr, the Tory chief whip, said it was “scandalous” the party had “put up another wall of silence”.

He said: “At a time when the NHS and Scottish Ambulance Service are at breaking point, Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers have gone into hiding in the hope things will suddenly get better.

“People are needlessly dying because of the SNP’s failings yet they can’t even bring themselves to address the public on what is being done to alleviate the situation.”

This was rejected as “false” by the government, who said ministers had been working “around the clock” to keep the public informed.

A spokesperson said: “Ministers and clinicians have spoken to the media almost every day last week - the Health Secretary was interviewed on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and today (Sunday), the First Minister addressed Parliament on Thursday and the National Clinical Director was interviewed on Thursday and Friday.”

The criticism comes as the next stage of the vaccine rollout begins with the start of boosters and vaccination of younger teenagers.

The government said care home residents would be the first to receive a jab, followed by frontline health workers.

Those previously shielding or over 70 will begin receiving letters for their boosters from the end of the month, with other eligible groups able to book appointments in October.

Health secretary, Humza Yousaf, said he was pleased to see the booster programme get underway.

He said: “The booster programme will run alongside our biggest ever flu vaccine programme as both of these programmes are important for individual and for public health and wherever possible, those eligible will be offered COVID-19 booster and flu vaccines together.

“We are also starting vaccination of 12-15 year olds after Scottish Ministers accepted advice from the four UK Chief Medical Officers. This group can now head to drop-in clinics for their jabs or wait for a letter offering them a scheduled appointment.”

Responding to the criticism around the ambulance service’s funding, a Scottish Government spokesperson said the service was under the most pressure ever since the inception of the NHS due to the pandemic.

They said: “We are doing everything possible to help the Service - giving urgent consideration to temporary admission wards to ease bottlenecks between ambulances and our hospitals, we have requested targeted military assistance and are investing an extra £20 million to fund almost 300 new Ambulance Service staff some of whom have already started work, with others due to start next month.

“Since 2011 we have boosted the resource budget by 17.7 per cent and have invested over £1 billion in the Service in the last four years alone. Staffing is up 62.4 per cent since 2007.

“Despite the pressures of the pandemic our ambulance crews, who serve some of the most rural areas in the UK, responded in 2020-21 to over 70 per cent of highest priority calls in under 10 minutes and more than 99 per cent in under 30 minutes.”

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