NHS Scotland crisis: A grim flashback to depths of Covid as Nicola Sturgeon takes to the podium

Nicola Sturgeon’s media briefing on the winter pressures facing the NHS provoked horrible flashbacks to the depths of the Covid pandemic.

Once again, the First Minister took to the podium flanked by her health secretary and an official, this time in the form of Humza Yousaf and deputy chief medical officer Graham Ellis respectively.

And once again, we were hit with a raft of statistics painting a bleak picture of an increasingly frightening situation.

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The NHS is grappling with the most difficult winter it has ever faced, Ms Sturgeon said. More than 400 people were admitted to hospital with Covid just last week, while medical staff are also dealing with “extraordinary levels” of flu and rising cases of Strep A.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a press conference on winter pressures in the NHS. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire

Over the festive holiday period, NHS24 answered almost 100,000 calls, the highest number in more than a decade. Meanwhile, the ambulance service responded to more than 16,000 emergency incidents in the past week – 11 per cent higher than the average over the previous four weeks.

"The reality is hospitals right now are currently almost completely full,” Ms Sturgeon said. Last Wednesday, bed occupancy in Scotland exceeded 95 per cent.

Delayed discharges are part of the problem. There are more than 1,700 people in hospital who don’t need to be there, the First Minister said.

She insisted more would be done to avoid unnecessary attendances in hospital and to speed up discharges. NHS24 staffing will increase in coming weeks, while health boards are being supported to “maximise primary care”, including through initiatives such as opening GP practices on Saturdays. Immediate extra funding will also be provided to health and social care partnerships to support the booking of additional care home beds.

BMA Scotland, the doctors’ union, has warned patient safety is at risk. Asked about this, Ms Sturgeon’s language was careful. The vast majority of patients get “excellent care”, she said, but more are waiting longer for treatment than ministers want, which “of course does raise concerns about clinical care”.

Is the NHS unsustainable in its current form? No, but it needs to “adapt and change and reform”.

The First Minister took questions from the media for around an hour, with only occasional contributions from Mr Yousaf. Opposition parties are calling for his head. One journalist asked the health secretary whether he was out of his depth.

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"I’ll answer for Humza,” said Ms Sturgeon. “Humza is a health secretary doing a very good job in very difficult circumstances.

"I spent almost six years doing the job that Humza is doing now. I know that in times that then were relatively easy compared to what is being experienced right now, being health secretary is possibly the toughest job in government, and Humza is doing it well.”

Mr Yousaf said the role was “by far” the most challenging he had faced, and he is working "relentlessly, leaving no stone unturned”. He has spoken elsewhere of sleepless nights, and he certainly looks exhausted. Few would envy him.

Mr Yousaf will provide more details of the actions the Government is taking on Tuesday. But for now, many will find it hard to shake the feeling the prognosis is grim, despite the promises of tired politicians.

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