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10 January 2023

The NHS crisis has left the SNP with nowhere to hide

If Nicola Sturgeon fails to turn the health service around, it may soon be her government that finds itself in intensive care.

By Chris Deerin

As Nicola Sturgeon delivered her emergency briefing on the calamitous state of the Scottish NHS yesterday (9 January), it wasn’t at first clear that Humza Yousaf had even been allowed into the room. The TV cameras were focused tightly on the First Minister, and it was only ten minutes in, when she dismissively waved a hand to the side, that it became evident her hapless health secretary was standing beside her rather than languishing in a cupboard somewhere.

At her side but thoroughly sidelined, Yousaf had the haunted eyes of a man just given some very bad news by a consultant. “How long have I got, doc?” “In this job? I’d say about a fortnight.” He cut a crushed figure when he was, at last, allowed to speak, and struggled to raise his voice above a stuttering whisper. He is so transparently overwhelmed by the scale of his duties, so obviously having to operate way beyond his capabilities, that the only prescription should be a nice lie down in a dark room. Until July.

Sturgeon herself was in full Covid-19 pandemic mammy mode. I’d missed this version of her – she’s at her best when the civil service has prepared a collection of alarming data and stats for her to read out, and when she can enunciate jargon such as “enhanced infection control procedures”, “escalation contingencies” and “patient journeys”. It all made for a suitably gloomy, Presbyterian sermon to usher in the new year.

The First Minister was here to help. There will soon be more people at the end of an NHS 24 phone, she told us. Hospital bed-blockers will be decanted somewhere else (actual destination unclear) even if their care package isn’t quite ready yet. Some GP surgeries might open on a Saturday (she’ll get back to us on that). There was vague mention – of course there was  – of “a new app”.

The problem is that while Sturgeon may not yet have lost her health secretary, she has already lost the room. The questions that followed from the press showed the pack utterly unimpressed by what they’d just heard. Worse, the British Medical Association seems to have comprehensively broken with the Scottish government. Sturgeon’s claim in her own defence that this crisis is “unprecedented” was dismissed by Lailah Peel, the Scottish BMA’s deputy chairwoman, on Twitter: “It makes it sound like the current situation wasn’t entirely predictable or preventable. Like this isn’t a crisis years in the making.” This is a polite version of what the BMA leadership is saying behind closed doors.

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Sturgeon is smart enough to spot the warning signs here. Her party has for years been able to rely on decent relations with organisations such as the BMA and other trade unions, in part because the SNP was regarded as being more sympathetic to public sector workers than the Tories were at Westminster. Now, though, the Scottish government’s basic competence is being called into question, as well as the impact its failures are having on NHS staff.

The voters also appear to be noticing. A Survation poll published this week by the pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union found that 61 per cent of people felt the SNP was not handling the NHS well, a finding in line with other recent surveys. If Sturgeon can’t turn this crisis around, it may soon be her government that finds itself in intensive care.

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