Orcadian Column, 24 September 2021


“People should think twice about phoning for an ambulance,” declared Humza Yousaf last week. What the Health Secretary’s message lacked in subtly it made up for in clarity – just not in a good way.

After 18 months of a pandemic during which it has not always been easy persuading people in need of urgent and sometimes life-saving treatment to seek assistance, it was a message with the potential to cause confusion, at best, and real harm, at worst.

Few roles in government demand greater care in the accuracy of communication with the public than that of Health Secretary. Few ministers are required to keep more plates spinning. And few risk such serious consequences should any of those plates crash to the floor.

It was therefore a surprise to many when Nicola Sturgeon appointed Mr Yousaf as her Health Secretary back in May. For all his skills, Mr Yousaf can seldom resist the temptation to ‘shoot from the lip’, a characteristic that rarely serves anyone well in times of crisis.

And Scotland’s ambulance service certainly appears to be facing a mounting crisis. At FMQs last week, MSPs heard how 86-year old, Lillian Briggs from Edinburgh waited eight hours in agony on her kitchen floor after breaking her hip in a fall. Worse still was the case of 65-year old Glasgwegian, Gerald Brown who died after waiting 40 hours for a paramedic. A death, Mr Brown’s GP believes was entirely avoidable.

In response, and despite mounting evidence, Nicola Sturgeon stubbornly refuses to accept the notion of crisis. It was a position that became harder to sustain as she confirmed to parliament her intention to call in the British Army to help with driving ambulances.

The First Minister emphasised the pressures created by Covid, but that risks underplaying the extent to which the origins of this crisis pre-date the pandemic. Across the health and care sector over recent weeks, we have heard a range of professional bodies warning of serious, long-standing problems arising from staff shortages.

This includes the ambulance service, of course. Under Freedom of Information, Scottish Liberal Democrats obtained details of the ‘demand and capacity review’ undertaken by Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS). This underlined the risks to the service in the absence of a significant increase in staffing across the board.

In response, SAS and Scottish Government have been quick to insist that funding is now in place to recruit almost 500 new staff. If true, this is undoubtedly welcome and makes it impossible for SAS and Ministers to continue ignoring the shortfall here in Orkney.

Over the last three years, I have been making the case for a second ambulance to cover the Orkney mainland and linked south isles. The current single ambulance does not meet Orkney’s needs, putting ambulance crew under pressure, making unreasonable demands on out-of-hours doctors and leaving the public potentially at risk.  Despite repeated promises from SAS and Ministers, recent recruitment has simply plugged gaps rather than expanded the capacity in line with what is needed and what is in place in Shetland. That must now change, a point I will be reinforcing with the Health Secretary.

As for Mr Yousaf, it has been a tough few weeks. To add to his woes, figures out this week confirm record A&E waits across the country. Meantime, following a recent badminton accident, the Health Secretary has been zipping around parliament on a bizarre-looking scooter. Unfortunately, while rushing to the Chamber last Thursday, he crashed in spectacular fashion. It was caught on film and quickly prompted Twitter to go into meltdown. Mr Yousaf’s rather po-faced response didn’t help, particularly given his own track record of social media posts over the years.

Later the same day, Mr Yousaf sat dolefully at the First Minister’s side as she was forced to spend much of FMQs defending her hapless Health Secretary. By the look on Nicola Sturgeon’s face, it’s fair to assume that if any more plates fall to the floor in the health department, Mr Yousaf may find that it’s not just his scooter that is ‘shoogly’.

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