FMQs sketch: Why Scottish Government's answers on ambulance crisis are 'just words’

The word ‘ambulance’ was uttered in Holyrood once every 51 seconds during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday.

I know, because I counted. For the first 15 minutes of the session at least.

Then I started to despair and gave up, as the word began to lose its meaning. Ambulance, ambulance, ambulance.

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For, despite the intensity and frequency of the discussion surrounding the spiralling crisis in the NHS – and namely the problems in the Scottish Ambulance Service (that word again), which has been hit hard with staff shortages and a lack of capacity in accident-and-emergency wards – little progress was made.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney consults health secretary, Humza Yousaf during First Minster's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon chose a good week to miss First Minister’s Questions, instead leaving her deputy John Swinney to face a unified front from the opposition, increasingly frustrated by the worsening situation.

While the FM attended a Remembrance Day service at COP26 in Glasgow, Mr Swinney remained at the other end of the M8 where he was grilled in turn by Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton over the NHS crisis and, specifically, ambulance waiting times.

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The party leaders, for once, acted as one, referencing Mr Swinney’s response to their counterparts’ questions.

Both Mr Ross and Mr Sarwar referred to the tragic story of Richard Brown, a 55-year-old man who died after waiting more than five hours for an ambulance. Similar stories abound across Scotland, while ambulance staff themselves say they feel under-valued and fatigued.

In an uncharacteristic show of pure frustration, Mr Sarwar raised his voice amid applause from the chamber.

“The Deputy First Minister says that the system is broken,” he said. “Who is in charge of the system? You’ve been in charge for 14 years, let’s not pretend this is some kind of new problem.”

Mr Swinney responded with practised patter detailing the investment already announced for the health service in September.

But Mr Sarwar had already dismissed this argument in response to Mr Ross.

"The answers weren’t good enough, they were just words,” he said.

Words. Ambulance. There’s another week until the next FMQs – will that be long enough for sufficient action to be taken that we will not have to hear that word again as often in seven days’ time? It seems unlikely.

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