Kevan Christie: SNP pile pressure on NHS with staffing laws

In the face of the worst-ever NHS treatment-time figures and persistent calls for her resignation, Health Secretary Shona Robison has devised a new tactic in a bid to quell the relentless criticism.

Health Secretary Shona Robison (right) visits Perth Royal Infirmary

The much-maligned minister now appears to believe that cloaking any announcement about NHS performance and the ongoing staffing crisis in what could be called pseudo-legislation will keep the wolves from her door.

The announcement last week of The Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Bill, which places a legal requirement on NHS boards and care services to “ensure appropriate numbers of suitably trained staff are in place”, sounds grown-up and serious but on the face of it seems toothless.

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And, if it’s not just a paper exercise, the last thing Scotland’s hard-pressed health boards need right now is the stick over the carrot.

Despite existing NHS waiting-time laws being branded “utterly meaningless” by opposition politicians – on the back of the latest missed-targets debacle and the treatment-time guarantee being breached over 134,000 times – the Scottish Government believes the time is right to introduce further such legislation.

The need for effective and safe NHS staffing levels has been treated like some kind of “breaking news” by the Health Secretary with every major health organisation from the BMA in Scotland to the Royal College of Nursing making the point that the present system is creaking and staff shortages are to blame.

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On top of the latest Bill – and no-one can tell you what will actually happen if health boards fail to have adequate staffing in place – a bit of money has been thrown into the mix.

Therefore, the day before “nightmare health stats Tuesday” – a weekly horror show for the Scottish Government – they announced a package of measures, including £50 million of extra funding for health boards to reduce long waits for treatment.

The aims include diagnosing cancer quicker by appointing two independent specialists to look for ways to improve testing, while also using specialist advanced nurses to help in this area.

It is long overdue given that, to cite one example, more than 5,000 patients in Scotland had waited over six weeks for bowel cancer tests at their local hospital as of 31 March this year.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was told last month by the Scottish public services ombudsman that it must look at offering patients operations elsewhere, including the private sector and England in cases where it is unable to comply with the law.

At least this is some attempt at redress although travelling down south is hardly ideal and the irony is that, in some cases, the same consultant will be performing operations for the NHS and in the private sector.

Basically, there is no point in making moves to legislate for safe and effective NHS staffing levels without having a clear and coherent plan to support existing staff and attract new blood into the health service.

The Scottish Government has been warned on numerous occasions that an over-reliance on target setting fosters a blame culture and does little to help over-worked and stressed-out staff. They have ignored this and put the ball firmly back in the court of the health boards with legislation that does nothing to help staff and patients.

But what it does do is give the false impression that something is being done.