At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said while new figures from Public Health Scotland had shown fewer people were admitted to accident and emergency (A&E) units this week than the same week in 2019, the number of patients waiting for more than half a day to be seen at A&E were “now ten times higher”.
He said while the pandemic had “made things worse” there were longer-term issues and accused the Scottish Government of failing to “properly resource” the ambulance service, reducing the number of hospital beds and not “plugging the gaps in Scotland's NHS workforce”.
He said: “First Minister, which of these decisions taken before the pandemic do you regret most?”
Ms Sturgeon said investment in the workforce had seen the number of A&E consultants rise by 242 per cent under the SNP Government – the Scottish Government later confirming the “Emergency Medicine Consultant workforce” had risen from 75.8 whole time equivalent consultants in September 2006 to 259.1 in June this year.
She said while A&E departments were “under intense pressure”, this had been “considerably exacerbated because of Covid.”
“The figures we saw last week of just over seven in ten people being seen within four hours in A&E is not good enough. I think it is important to put that into context because health services across the UK, across Europe and the world, are struggling with this pressure in similar ways,” she said.
"So if we look at the last month, for which we have full figures available, performance in core A&E departments in Scotland against the four-hour target was 79.5 per cent. That compares with 67.7 per cent in England, and 60.7 per cent in Wales, so we clearly see pressure across the UK.”
Ms Sturgeon said there was ongoing “work to enhance the discharge processes” as well as the redesign of urgent care, the opening of additional bed capacity, "strengthening links with social and community care to maximise the community response”, and enhancing evening and weekend working.
“We will continue to invest in staff, we will continue to invest in the NHS overall and we will continue to support the reforms that will allow patients to flow through the National Health Service more quickly than is the case at the moment,” she said.
However, Mr Ross said Ms Sturgeon was “dismissing the fact that people are waiting more than half a day to be treated” and claimed she had used the “usual tactic" of comparing Scotland with Wales and England.
"Nicola Sturgeon is Scotland's First Minister,” he said.
"She was Scotland's health secretary. I would like her to take some responsibility for what is happening in Scotland's health care.”
He accused the First Minister of “hiding behind Covid” and said more than 850,000 people had waited longer than the four-hour target time at A&E since 2015.
"Why has it happened?” he asked.
"Well, from 2015 to 2020, the number of staffed acute beds in Scotland has dropped by more than 2,500. The First Minister has finally agreed that the NHS is in crisis, but we need action now.
"The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said we need 1,000 more acute beds. How many of those extra beds has the Scottish Government now identified?”
Ms Sturgeon rejected the suggestion she had “dismissed the pressure that the NHS is under in any way, shape or form” and said context was required as NHS pressures were not “unique to Scotland and all because of the SNP.”
She added: “The National Health Service is under pressure because of a global pandemic,
"But since this government took office there’s been a 242 per cent increase in A&E consultants. We also see staffing across the NHS generally at record levels, and we see the budget of the NHS at record levels.
"On beds we've seen a change in the profile of bed numbers way before this government took office, as length of stays in our hospitals decrease – a picture replicated across the whole of the UK. Actually [in] the most recent time we've seen a slight increase in the number of acute beds operational across our health service.
"I was discussing with officials yesterday how, for example, we will free up additional bed capacity, through increasing the pace of which people who no longer need to be in hospital, are discharged to more appropriate settings.
"There is a range of work underway in these very challenging circumstances to make sure that we support the National Health Service and that's what I will continue to focus on each and every single day to support those working so hard on the front line.”
Mr Ross alleged NHS capacity was “down across the board” and said services such as cervical cancer screening should now be returning to normal, but the number of screenings was a third lower compared to the same period in 2019.
He accused the First Minister of only “reacting when disaster strikes” and “being behind the curve”.
Ms Sturgeon admitted there had been “an impact from Covid on people coming forward for routine health care” and it was vital “very clear, very consistent messages” were given to women and to attend appointments.
She added: "I think anybody in this chamber who stands up and tries to pretend that the pandemic has not had an extremely significant impact on all of this is insulting people's intelligence and I think actually lacking in credibility.
"I think it is important in the midst of a global pandemic, that governments do respond to circumstances, that government's adapt and are flexible. And that is what this government has done and it's what we will continue to do.”