Orcadian Column, 12 January 2023

12 Jan 2023

This time last year we were wrestling with the new Omicron variant of Covid. So it was a relief to see the Ba and log pull back in their rightful place in the festive calendar this year, alongside the more recent addition of the tractor run. More positive still, of course, was the sight of Ba’s entering the water and Sanday joining the tractor cavalcade!

Yet, as we enter a new year, the mood seems scarcely more upbeat than twelve months ago. A cost of living crisis and public services under severe strain have driven a wave of industrial action that speaks to a breakdown in relations between government and employers on the one hand and public sector unions and workers on the other.

Arguments between Conservatives and SNP politicians about whether the crisis is most acute north or the south of the border are largely a distraction, akin to two bald men fighting over a comb. In truth, the overall situation is dire. Indeed, the Royal Society of Emergency Medicine has warned that around 500 deaths a week in the UK can be attributed to the pressures on A&E, a claim reinforced by the Deputy Chair of BMA Scotland during media interviews at the weekend.

While much of the attention has focused on the crisis facing A&E, in reality there is no part of our health and care services that is not struggling to cope. Understandably this, and the wider disruption we are seeing to our public services, has affected confidence in those responsible for taking decisions. A poll out this week showed around 60% felt the Scottish Government was not doing well in managing health and care, transport and the economy with less than a third expressing any degree of confidence.

The same poll also pointed to a marked fall in support for breaking up the UK and strong opposition to the First Minister’s intention of framing the next General Election as a ‘de facto referendum’ on independence. Not the ideal backdrop for a parliamentary debate on independence scheduled by the SNP Government for the first day back after Christmas recess.

That decision looked tone-deaf given strike action this week in Scottish schools and the deepening health crisis, which perhaps explains Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to hurriedly arrange a press conference on the latter for Monday afternoon. This event proved more an exercise in explaining why none of it was the fault of Ms Sturgeon or her government, despite having been in power for 16 years, first as Health Secretary then as First Minister. In fairness, though, there is growing recognition of the need for a more fundamental review of how health and care is delivered and better integrated with other key policy areas, such as benefits, housing and the environment.

None of which will ease the pressure on current Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf who looks increasingly helpless and hapless in the face of an incessant deluge of worsening figures on every conceivable health target and metric set by the government. Calls for his resignation are now routine, and even some of his own backbenchers look distinctly unimpressed by his performance, but it’s unclear what his dismissal would actually achieve.

That said, Mr Yousaf’s case is not helped by the government’s insistence on crashing ahead with yet another ill-conceived centralisation, this time of social care. Roundly criticised by almost every stakeholder, the National Care Service (NCS) will absorb around £1bn, resources that could more effectively be deployed improving terms and conditions for staff and rebuilding morale across the sector.

Amidst all this, former SNP Health Secretary, Alex Neil has lambasted many of his former colleagues as ‘nodding dogs’. In fairness, SNP Finance Committee Convener, Kenny Gibson has raised serious concerns about the financial black hole at the heart of the NCS. Moreover, as entertaining as Mr Neil’s interventions invariably are, I don’t recall him ever rebelling as a Minister or backbencher, despite his support for Brexit.

Less than two weeks into the new year and festive goodwill has clearly been exhausted. Indeed, it could yet see the current Health Secretary, like three of the four Ba’s this year, go for an early bath. Happy New Year!

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