FMQs: Nicola Sturgeon accused of ‘losing her grip’ on Covid and NHS

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of “losing her grip” on the pandemic amid warnings of an NHS in crisis as it was revealed thousands of long Covid patients in Scotland are not being referred for specialist treatment.

During a heated 45 minutes on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon defended her government’s decisions on the pandemic as she also came under attack from opposition MSPs for the announcement of vaccine passports and increasing waiting lists in the opening First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) of the new parliamentary session.

The criticism came as Scotland posted its highest daily death figure since July, with 17 additional deaths recorded in the 24 hours to Thursday,

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Nicola Sturgeon arriving for First Minister's Questions.

A further 6,107 people had returned positive Covid tests, with the number of people in hospital doubling in the past ten days.

More than 32,000 pupils have also been absent from school this week across Scotland due to Covid-19.

Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland (CHSS) separately warned they could not get in touch with patients to provide a support service because of "NHS bureaucracy".

The charity, along with Royal College of Occupational Therapists, Chartered Society of Physiotherapists and Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland (QNIS), have published a Long Covid Action Plan and demanded support from the Scottish Government.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics estimate 74,000 people in Scotland are living with "self-reported" long Covid. However, CHSS said they were only managing up to 60 patients per month despite launching a one-on-one support service in February.

Scottish Tories leader Douglas Ross used FMQs to raise the thousands of long Covid patients not being referred for support as he criticised the government's “flimsy” NHS Recovery Plan for failing to mention the condition.

He said: “A&E waiting times are the worst in six years. Drug deaths are the worst in seven years. Alcohol deaths are the worst in eight years. People can’t get in to see their GP and are waiting hours for an ambulance.

Nicola Sturgeon is losing her grip on Covid and the NHS is in crisis.

“The pressure is only going to build as we move towards winter. Scotland’s NHS needs a real plan now to get our health service back on track.”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “We have a recovery plan. The NHS starts planning for winter much, much earlier in the year those plans are there. There is enormous pressure on our National Health Service right now, partly because of rising Covid cases.

"We wouldn't even have in place some of the mitigations against Covid that we do have in place because he wanted us to remove all of them and have no protection against the transmission of Covid.

"So as a responsible government, we will do what requires to be done to protect the public against Covid and we will do that for as long as is necessary. We will also support our NHS with £1 billion of additional targeted resource to support recovery.

"On long Covid we have invested £2.5 million on research projects. Chest Heart Stroke Scotland are making a number of very legitimate points about the further work we need to do to ensure support for those suffering from long Covid.

"So we'll continue to do what needs to be done to take the decisions to support the NHS and to support the country and to get through this Covid crisis.

"I welcome all contributions from across this chamber to that, but perhaps Douglas Ross can raise his game a little bit from screaming about U-turns and actually be part of finding the solutions that the country needs right now.”

The long Covid support service, funded by CHSS and the Scottish Government, was described in February as a first step towards a comprehensive national service.

CHSS chief executive Jane-Claire Judson said: “Damaging bureaucracy is proving to be a major hurdle between joint working with the NHS and the third sector, meaning health professionals aren’t able to refer their patients directly to us for support.

“No one benefits from this lack of a co-ordinated and consistent approach and it means thousands of people are missing out.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar pressed the First Minister on “ever-lengthening” waiting lists, which stand at 600,000 people – up from 450,000 before the pandemic.

He also said that in 2003 Ms Sturgeon had described a waiting list of around 80,000 under a previous Labour government as a “humiliation”.

Mr Sarwar said: “Even before the pandemic, there were 450,000 people languishing on NHS waiting lists – every one of them an anxious human being and a worried family. The fact of the matter is the NHS is already in crisis and we are staring down the barrel of a winter of chaos.

“No amount of spin or deflection can hide the scale of the challenge our NHS faces and the dangers it poses to the people of Scotland. We all know Nicola Sturgeon relied on slogans in opposition – the problem is she still relies on them in government.

“To say that the current NHS backlog is only down to the pandemic is disingenuous, disrespectful and frankly dangerous.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “It is the responsibility of the government to support the NHS and help NHS staff get through what is an extremely challenging situation for countries across the world.

"Most people, I think, recognise that we are in a global pandemic that has had a significant impact on our NHS. And so it is right to say that there were challenges in our NHS before Covid, but as we can see from the waiting times improvement plan that is in place, waiting times were starting to be reduced by the investment that we had made.”

Ms Sturgeon added: "I will not stand here and in any way underplay the challenge. But the support for the NHS through record funding and increased funding support for staff and the largest pay rise across the UK will make sure that we are delivering for patients as we come out of and recover from Covid.”

The First Minister added that her government’s waiting time targets were more "ambitious” than Labour’s had been in 2003.

She said: “If Anas Sarwar wants to come forward in the forthcoming budget process and point to where he thinks we should find extra money, I will be very happy to listen to that, but he has to do that responsibly and not simply in the way that suggests he can just conjure money out of nowhere.”

Mr Ross also raised the concerns of the hospitality trade on the proposed introduction of vaccine passports, claiming no-one had any “idea how passports are going to work”.

The passports for admission to venues including nightclubs and large-scale events are due to be brought in at the end of the month.

“Hospitality groups say the lack of engagement is extremely concerning,” Mr Ross asked.

"Scottish football has said the plans are unworkable. Industry groups need answers about this scheme before her government introduces it. Why haven’t they had that chance?”

“Parliament will debate these plans, but it would be nice to know what we are likely to be debating. This is another example of the shambolic, last-minute, knee-jerk decision making of this government.

"The same government that brought you confusion over what is a cafe now brings you confusion over what is a nightclub.”

The First Minister responded: “Douglas Ross should focus on whether he supports it [vaccine certification] or opposes it or will continue to engage in infantile opposition which characterises so much of the Conservative’s response to Covid. This is a global pandemic and we’ve all got a responsibility to live up to that.

“If I had stood here and announced as a fait accompli how every aspect of this was going to operate, he [Mr Ross] would be here today complaining we hadn’t given Parliament its proper place. We will do this properly.

"We also see across a range of different sectors an understanding of the reasons for them – we have to determine the least restrictive way of keeping people safe. There’s a degree of understanding and pragmatism from people on the frontline. Perhaps he should take a leaf out of their book.”

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