Health Secretary Jeane Freeman’s speech to SNP conference

Below is the speech given by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman to the SNP conference in Glasgow.


Some of my colleagues in the Scottish Government might try and tell you that they have the best job in government. Now what they do every day – and each works really hard to do a good job – what they do, does matter.

But they’re wrong about having the best job.

Because I do.

Yes, every day brings challenges – but every day is an opportunity to touch lives in Scotland like no other.

Few people know this better than Shona Robison. Shona worked tirelessly to serve our health service.

She steered our health and care services at the time of their most significant reforms in the 70 year history of our NHS. And she did this at the same time as overseeing the introduction of our world leading minimum unit pricing of alcohol – and securing a significant pay rise for frontline NHS staff.

Conference, I’m proud to follow in Shona Robison’s footsteps.

And I’m proud to serve in the health department alongside my ministerial colleagues Clare Haughey and Joe Fitzpatrick.

Just last week Joe announced £300,000 to support Women and Girls get more active – to break down the false barriers between what activity girls should do or boys should do.

In July he announced £2million of support for new Mums breastfeed for longer – all of it and more contributing to our absolute determination as an SNP government to drive out inequality – and helping the generations coming up behind us to live as healthily and as well as they can.

Clare Haughey as our Mental Health Minister has already finalised the new Suicide Prevention Strategy, and is driving our £250 million investment in community mental health services – working to deliver counsellors in every high school, more school nurses and more community based wellbeing support. Making sure people get the right support at the right time.

Each us gets the chance, almost daily, to see that our NHS is the most remarkable institution in the country.

Every minute of every day it is providing care, free at the point of need, for people the length and breadth of Scotland.

I’m tired of hearing people talking about an ageing population as a problem. It is a tremendous marker of the success of our NHS.

In its 70 years it has touched the life of every person alive today in Scotland. It can be easy to forget the sheer scale of the NHS and the number of people it helps each and every day. In the last year Scotland’s NHS carried out:

  • Over 1,500 IVF treatments – bringing hope to families across the country;
  • Over 280,000 inpatient or day-cases – that’s about 1 every 2 minutes;
  • Over 300,000 planned operations – that’s an average of 3 operations starting every 5 minutes;
  • Over 1.4 million outpatient appointments, that’s more than 5 appointments every 2 minutes;
  • And over 1.6 million A&E attendances – on average that’s an A&E attendance every 19 seconds. Every 19 seconds in Scotland’s A&E departments who have outperformed their counterparts in England for the last three and a half years.

Now its true that with these, and growing, demands being placed on our NHS, meeting the tough targets we’ve set for it can be difficult.

In the face of that, one option would be to scrap the targets. In fact, in NHS England they have scrapped their A&E waiting time target until at least April next year.

I’m not going to do that. I believe that we should have those targets because that is part and parcel of the contract – the social contract – we have with the people of Scotland we’re here to serve.

So in the next few weeks I’ll set out a robust new plan to progressively – and sustainably – improve that performance across our NHS over the next few years.

This won’t be easy. But bluntly, there are too many people waiting too long for treatment.

But with carefully directed investment and reform, I believe we can continue to shape our NHS to deliver for the future and achieve better outcomes for patients.

Carefully directed investment and reform – and the direct involvement of those who know best what needs to be done. Our NHS staff.

Because in the face of all these challenges our more than 162,000 NHS Scotland staff, are doing a fantastic job – day-in day-out. I know this from the emails I get, from the patients I speak to and from the evidence of high level patient satisfaction, not least with inpatients at a record high.

The staff of the NHS are its beating heart.

Conference, let’s offer our NHS staff our thanks for the fantastic care they give to the people of Scotland.

Delivering the reforms our NHS requires means we have the staff we need, and they have the training they need to deliver the best care possible.

We want to make sure our staff have the best support we can give – which is why we’re delivering a pay rise of at least 9% over the next 3 years for our agenda for change staff earning up to £80,000.

We’ve kept free tuition for nursing and midwifery degrees and protected their student bursary – both unforgivably scrapped by the Tories in England.

And we’re creating an additional 2,600 nursing and midwifery training places over this parliament.

But at the same time, each year we have a number of nursing and midwifery staff, retire. Staff who have gained a lifetime of skills and knowledge and expertise.

I don’t want to lose that experience and knowledge to our NHS.

Conference, you won’t be surprised to learn I think there is real value for our NHS in using the skills and experience of people in their sixties. Trust me – the sixties are a very fine decade.

So, from next year, we will pilot a new programme of Experienced Practice Advisers in midwifery, health visiting, district nursing and advanced practice.

Up to 100 of these mentors will be recruited from recently retired staff, using their very valuable skills, their knowledge, their hard won experience – to support newly qualified colleagues to reach their full potential.

Conference, our NHS can only flourish when everyone who works in it feels confident they can raise their voice. That they will be free to speak and they will be heard.

If there are shortcomings our frontline staff should be the first to see or hear them.

So let me be clear. If there is anyone in our health service who is feeling bullied or harassed I take that very seriously – and I want you to come forward.

But speaking up about bullying or intimidation can be hard to do. You worry that you might be ignored or your concerns dismissed. You worry there might be repercussions on you.

In recent years we’ve put a number of new steps in place to support staff. But I want to go further.

In the coming weeks I’ll set out more that we will do to strengthen support for staff and improve support in our health boards.

But one step I will take is that I will personally appoint each board’s whistleblowing champion. So if any one of these dedicated professionals feels they are not being heard in their boards, they can come straight to me.

Making sure our staff know we value them is so important.

That’s why I wrote last week, to all of our NHS staff who come from the EU to make sure they know we’re glad they’ve come here, we value the contribution they make, they are welcome in Scotland – and we want you to stay.

As a responsible government we’re working to do all we can to prepare our NHS for the worst that Brexit might bring. But the truth is we simply can’t mitigate all the damage a no-deal Brexit will do.

Earlier this year Ruth Davidson said: “The NHS has dealt brilliantly with [these] challenges over the last decade, finding new ways to deliver and improve the standard of care.”

Well Ruth, right here, right now the greatest challenge that our NHS faces is the disaster of Brexit. And you are doing nothing, nothing – to stop that and protect our health service.

Brexit threatens our NHS by undermining our economy, by making it harder to recruit skilled and unskilled staff from Europe, threatening the supply of medicines and jeopardising our access to clinical networks and clinical trials from Europe and our world leading place in medical research.

In fact almost every Better Together scare story told during the Independence referendum campaign, is now being delivered by Brexit.

So when you hear the Tories say we should just get on with Brexit, we should buckle down and ‘make it work’ – be clear and know that they are pushing that in the full knowledge it will harm our National Health Service and the care of everyone who depends on it.

Some Tories have started to say that we should follow the examples they’ve set in England on the NHS.

Just last week their Scottish spokesman said we should match health spending in England. That was a surprise given that we spend over 7% more per person on healthcare than the Tory UK Government does.

If we took the Tories’ advice and followed their spending in England it would lead to a cut to our NHS of £850 million. That’s equivalent to losing over 21,000 full time nurses – roughly half our nursing workforce.

The NHS in Tory hands – never safer, but smaller and much of it sold off.

And Labour’s plans are only a wee bit better. Their bright idea from the last Scottish election would have seen our NHS £360 million worse off this year. That’s around 9,000 nurses.

In fact if you compare nursing between Scotland and England you find some important differences:

  • The number of nurses per head in Scotland is 44% higher than England;
  • Latest figures show a 2% increase in people from Scotland choosing nursing as a career, compared to a 4% fall in England;
  • The nursing vacancy rate in England is more than double the rate in Scotland;
  • Nurse agency spending in England is around 3 times higher than in Scotland;
  • And earlier this year the BBC reported that in recent years we’ve had more people joining nursing than leave, whereas England had a fall of 3,000 nurses.

We will never follow the byzantine model that the Tories have forced on NHS England – an approach that has fractured and fragmented that health service.

Here In Scotland we have one NHS, committed to remaining true to its founding principles, publicly-owned, publicly-operated and free at the point of need.

This morning, tens of thousands of people went to work in our NHS. They took over from all of those who worked while we slept. Each one of them going off shift or starting the day – skilled, professional and determined to do the very best job they can. To help bring a new life into the world. To ease the passing of someone and to do it with dignity. And to meet every need in between – with skill, compassion and care.

Think of that for a moment. Tens of thousands of people in Scotland today, working for their fellow human beings. Yes they rightly, want their value to be recognised. They want to be paid fairly for their work. But that is not the sum total behind what they do. It is their humanity, their care for a fellow human being, their determination to make someone’s life better.

To each and every one of them – the SNP will always support you, we will always stand up for our NHS, and we will always speak up for Scotland.