Sir Keir Starmer’s comments come after analysis by Scottish Labour showed “staffing/inappropriate skill mix” contributed to more than 300 incidents within NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, potentially leading to two deaths at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and 59 "near misses". The party’s public health spokesperson, Paul O’Kane, labelled the issues a “workforce crisis”.
In a wide-ranging interview on BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show, the Labour leader also refused to set out a route to independence for Scotland, despite claiming the union remained a “voluntary” organisation. Sir Keir said that voter priorities of the cost-of-living crisis was the political reason he did not think there should be a referendum.
He also said he would not back a referendum if the Supreme Court back the Scottish Government’s argument that Holyrood can legislate for a vote, currently planned for next October. The SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster, Kirsten Oswald, said Sir Keir’s views on immigration were “incoherent” and “silly”.
Around 6,000 nursing and midwifery pasts are vacant within NHS Scotland, with the Scottish Government spending £8m on hiring 750 nurses and midwives from overseas to help fill staffing gaps. In England, the number of doctors joining the NHS from overseas has risen from 18 per cent to 34 per cent since 2014.
Sir Keir said that he believed “too many people” are being recruited from overseas for the NHS and said people should be trained in this country to fill vacancies rather than immigration. "We don't want open borders,” he said. “Freedom of movement has gone and it's not coming back.
"So that means fair rules, firm rules, a points-based system. What I would like to see is the numbers go down in some areas. I think we're recruiting too many people from overseas into, for example, the health service. But on the other hand, if we need high-skilled people in innovation in tech to set up factories etc, then I would encourage that."
The comments provoked outrage from senior SNP politicians on Twitter, with health secretary Humza Yousaf labelling the comments “increasingly concerning. He said: “Those coming from overseas play a huge role as part of our NHS family. In Scotland we have also been increasing nursing & medical student intake over years. A multi-pronged strategy is required. Labour's anti-immigration rhetoric increasingly concerning as well as short-sighted.”
John Swinney, the deputy first minister, added: “What an awful message to send out to people from other countries who are working in our NHS. Just to compete with the anti-immigration actions of the Tories. To be clear Scotland welcomes people from other countries - especially those in our NHS.”
Starmer, who accused the SNP of presiding over “15 years of failure” while in office, was also asked whether he would back an independence referendum if the Supreme Court rules that the Scottish Parliament should hold one. “It's good the case has gone to court because I think it's better to have legal certainty, so we all know the basis on which we're operating,” he said.
“All the court is going to be able to rule is, if it does rule in favour, is that there could or can be, [that] it's legally permissible to have a referendum. That doesn't answer the political question, which is 'should there be a referendum'? So my argument remains the same.”
He also said that he was focusing on “priorities” of the cost-of-living crisis and the economy when asked if this position was “anti-democratic”. “Politics is about priorities,” he said. “And my priority would be to deal with the issues that are bearing down on people this evening as they look and see whether they can pay the bills.”
The Labour leader also claimed Scotland is not “stuck” in the union and claimed it remains a voluntary arrangement, but repeatedly failed to outline a democratic route to independence for Scotland. Sir Keir, and senior Conservative politicians, have never set out the democratic result that would trigger a referendum. Alister Jack, the Scotland Secretary, has previously pointed to 60 per cent pro-independence support in polling over a prolonged period.
Asked why he “protect[s] democracy across the UK but deny it to the people of Scotland”, Sir Keir claimed Covid-19 recovery was the central reason why the SNP won the Holyrood election last year. He added: “I fundamentally reject the argument that the way you grow the economy is to put a border between Scotland and England.
“I don’t think that will help the economy. I think it will make a bad situation worse, but we have to be clear the priority going into that election has to be the economy, has to be the economy, has to be answering the question people are asking around their kitchen table, which is ‘can I make ends meet?’”
He claimed Scots want an alternative to the UK and Scottish governments, accusing them of using independence as a distraction for their “records of failure”. He claimed Scottish votes are required for a Labour government to win the next general election.
“I want a Labour government that represents the whole of the United Kingdom and that’s why the road for me to a Labour government runs through Scotland,” he said. “Scotland matters hugely to me and my Labour Party.”
Kirsten Oswald, deputy leader of the SNP in Westminster, said the Conservatives and Labour are “both very much parties of Brexit” and that was not where the future of Scotland lies. She said: “There is this issue of democracy. [Keir Starmer] thinks it is somehow for him to say that people in Scotland can’t have an independence referendum despite them having voted for that.
"It’s not for Keir Starmer or anyone else to decide that he has the right to decide what decisions people in Scotland will make. They’ve made very clear decisions in terms of the way that they have voted and the Scottish Government has a mandate for that.
"It is a really extraordinary position that the Labour Party are now engaging in denying democracy and I don’t think that can stand.”