Today, I want to speak to you about Scotland’s National Health Service.
Like so many of you, the COVID crisis has caused me to reflect on what I value most in life.
It has also reinforced for me the fact that politics must be about making a positive difference to people’s lives.
That is all that matters.
Over the last year I know you won’t have agreed with every decision that I and the SNP government have taken.
And we certainly haven’t got every decision right.
But we have given total commitment to the task of keeping Scotland as safe as possible – of saving lives, protecting health and safeguarding our NHS.
And that remains my overriding duty.
Getting us through this pandemic is my priority in all circumstances – including during this election campaign.
Of course, that doesn’t mean this election is in any way less important.
In fact, given the times we are living in, and the crucial nature of the choice before Scotland, the election could not be any more important.
In just four weeks’ time the people of Scotland will decide who should be First Minister and which party should form the government.
In this election I am asking you to re-elect me as First Minister – first and foremost because strong and experienced leadership is vital for these serious times, both now and for the months and years ahead.
And I am asking you to re-elect an SNP government which has the seriousness of purpose to lead our country through crisis and drive forward our recovery.
Indeed, what has become clear already during this election campaign is that the SNP is the only party with a serious and comprehensive plan for government and for our national recovery from COVID.
It is a plan to build a fairer, more equal country, grounded in a sense of solidarity where we look out for one another.
We are the only party putting in the detailed thinking and hard work needed to bring about a better future.
At the very heart of our plan is the National Health Service.
As First Minister I have a solemn duty to the people of Scotland to keep our country safe.
But I also have a duty to protect our NHS and those who work in it, just as they have protected all of us.
There are already 21,500 more people working in our NHS than when the SNP took office – indeed, NHS staff numbers in Scotland are now at record levels
Patient satisfaction also continues to be high.
Before the pandemic, we were making real progress with our three year £850 million plan to bring down waiting times.
And Scotland’s core A&E services were the best performing anywhere in UK.
In the last year we’ve asked more of our NHS than ever before – and more than we could ever have expected.
Nurses, paramedics, doctors, pharmacists, cleaners, porters and everyone who works in the health service have responded magnificently.
It was essential to put our NHS on an emergency footing to cope with the virus.
And of course Covid is not over
Sadly patients continue to be admitted to hospital and intensive care.
People, tragically, are still losing their lives.
So we must not lower our guard.
But as we see the incredible success of the vaccine programme – as well as the sacrifice of people across Scotland in suppressing case numbers – we can be more optimistic that better times now lie ahead.
And that means it is now time to step up our efforts to get our NHS back to normal – to tackle the consequences of Covid for those who work in our health service and for those who rely on it for care and treatment.
This will take time, investment and hard work – which is why it needs a solid plan.
Next week, our manifesto will set out the levels of investment we intend to commit to our NHS and social care services over the next term of parliament.
However, I can confirm today that – should we be re-elected – the SNP will deliver and implement a plan for the full-scale post-pandemic remobilisation of the NHS.
Central to this plan will be a commitment to increase – within the first year of the new Parliament – inpatient, day-case and outpatient treatment activity by 10 per cent compared to pre-pandemic activity levels, and then to maintain that level for the rest of the term.
This plan is already well developed and in the early stages of deployment.
Today I will set out more details of our approach and just some of the actions we will take as we remobilise the NHS for the future.
Crucial to our efforts will be the new NHS Centre for Sustainable Delivery – because we know we cannot simply return to the way things worked before COVID.
We must reform and adapt how the NHS provides care – principally for the benefit of patients, but also to better reflect and take advantage of new technology and modern ways of working.
With our ageing population and the backlog of care caused by Covid, we need to increase the capacity of the NHS across primary, community and acute sectors, and also be more innovative about how NHS capacity is utilised.
This is happening already in certain ways.
For example, the increased use of digital consultations is saving many patients the trip to the doctors or the hospital, and helping to speeding up treatment.
And a new approach to A&E means that only those who really need to go to hospital urgently will now be treated in our accident and emergency departments.
But to ensure we treat those whose treatment has been delayed as quickly as possible, and maintain and improve day to day services on an ongoing basis, we must now modernise and improve how the NHS works in other areas too.
Our plan has three clear priorities.
Firstly, we will recognise, invest in and support the contribution of the magnificent NHS staff who care for us.
That’s why we have given NHS workers a £500 thank-you bonus.
And it’s why we are offering the biggest single increase in NHS pay in the history of devolution.
It will mean, for example, that a nurse at the top of Band 5 of the Agenda for Change pay scale will be over £1,300 better off after tax than a counterpart in England.
Our NHS workers are extraordinary people and, in this most extraordinary of years, this is a way of showing our collective appreciation.
But it is also vitally important for recruitment and retention of NHS staff that we increase what we pay them.
Given all that our NHS staff have endured over the last year, we also have a duty to look after their wellbeing.
Partly, this is about ensuring that the NHS as an employer acts fairly and with staff wellbeing at heart.
For example, I know that over the past year, many staff postponed annual leave to make sure they were available to care for others.
The NHS must ensure they get the chance to take that holiday entitlement as we move into the new financial year.
Staff – particularly those that have been at the sharpest end of Covid – must get the time they need to recover.
Secondly, our national NHS remobilisation plan will enable more people to get the right support closer to their home.
A real shift in the balance of care is required – from acute hospital settings to community and local services.
This shift in the balance of care must be backed up by investment.
So in the next parliament, we will ensure that half of the total budget for frontline NHS services will be invested in community and primary care.
This will allow us, for example, to invest in more nurse-led community treatment in GP practices and other community settings, so that more people can be cared for more conveniently and quickly.
Just one example – of many – of the difference that can be made is in the treatment of glaucoma, an eye condition that can lead to loss of vision if it’s not diagnosed and treated early.
With people now living longer, this is a condition that increasing numbers of us will be diagnosed with in the years to come.
With the right investments, we estimate that in future around 30,000 glaucoma patients could get the care they need in community settings rather than attending hospital as outpatients.
This is obviously better and more convenient for patients – but it will also free up hospital capacity.
Which brings me to the third part of the NHS remobilisation plan: building new and maximising existing hospital capacity so that more patients can be treated more quickly .
Our plan envisages that by 2025, an additional 1,500 staff will be recruited to work in the new national elective and diagnostic treatment centres that are being established across the country to carry out more planned operations.
Like the fantastic Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank, these elective centres will be dedicated to delivering planned care only, rather than the mix of emergency and planned treatment that is carried out in most of our existing hospitals.
These centres will specialise in procedures like hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery and diagnostic services like MRI scans.
We have already expanded the original elective centre at the Golden Jubilee.
A further six new elective centres are already in development, and we will also renew the Edinburgh Eye Pavilion
But today I can announce that, in light of the backlog created by Covid, we will establish if re-elected two more elective treatment centres – one in Ayrshire and another in Cumbernauld.
This will mean a national network of 10 elective and diagnostic centres across the country.
This will significantly increase NHS capacity but crucially, delivering elective care in this way will also reduce the chance of last minute delays because treatment will not have to be paused for emergencies.
This expansion of elective capacity will be vital. But it will take time for all of it to be fully operational.
So to increase capacity in the meantime, while these projects are completed, we intend to invest in shorter term capacity.
We will utilise mobile operating theatre units at a number of NHS sites.
And we will bring on stream under used theatre capacity in community and general hospitals, so that they can treat more patients as day cases.
One of the places where this will happen is East Lothian Community Hospital in Haddington.
Having increased surgical capacity means we will need to increase the number of available intensive care beds, so we plan to expand our normal pre Covid ICU capacity from 175 beds to at least 200.
And lastly, in terms of the detail I am setting out today, we will invest in a new network of fast track cancer diagnostic centres – the first three of these, in Fife, Ayrshire & Arran and Dumfries & Galloway will be operational by the end of May.
We will also significantly expand community mental health services. Investment in and reform of mental health services – especially for children and young people – was already a priority pre-pandemic. The stress and trauma of Covid has made that even more necessary and urgent.
The ambition we are setting out in the remobilisation plan is bold but also achievable – it is a plan to recover from the pandemic, remobilise our NHS and tackle the treatment backlog, and out the NHS on a secure and sustainable footing for the long term.
I believe that working with our NHS staff, local communities, patient groups and trade unions, we can make sure people get the treatment they need, and that we can get Scotland’s NHS not just back to where it was, but ready to serve Scotland long into the future
These are the SNP’s plans.
We can of course only put these into practice if we are in government.
So I am asking you at this election not to take any chances with our NHS.
The only sure to ensure the re-election of an SNP government providing the experienced leadership the country needs in these most serious of times is to give both votes to the SNP on 6 May.
We have the track-record, the experience and an unwavering and absolute commitment to a publicly-owned National Health Service that delivers care free at the point of use.
The last year has taught us never to take the NHS for granted.
We need to value it, invest in it and protect it with everything we’ve got.
Of course, in all this it’s important to remember that if it wasn’t for our own Scottish Parliament, the Tories would now be running the NHS in Scotland.
That means our heath service would have been subject to the same creeping privatisation we’ve seen south of the border.
The powers of the Scottish Parliament though – just like the NHS – have to be protected.
Ever since the Brexit vote, Westminster has been looking to take powers away from Holyrood.
They’ve recently passed a new law which gives Tory ministers the right to subject healthcare services in Scotland to what they call “market access” principles – and it leaves the Scottish Parliament powerless to stop them.
Boris Johnson’s government is taking Scotland in the wrong direction – and if we don’t stop them, our NHS will not be exempt.
The hard Brexit they have imposed on us will squeeze the economy and the money available for public services like the NHS.
The Tories’ hostile immigration policy will make it harder to recruit staff – particularly for social care.
A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see the NHS pay more to American drugs companies, reducing the budget for patient care.
And the Tories have even stripped from their Trade Bill a clause that would have prevented any post-Brexit deals from undermining “a comprehensive publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery”.
These Westminster decisions will have a real impact on Scotland.
Taken together they should raise a concern for the future of our NHS.
For that reason – and many others – I believe people in Scotland should have the choice of independence, though only when the COVID crisis is over.
In an independent Scotland, we’ll have the powers needed for the kind of long term recovery most people who live here want to see.
We will have more powers over social security to build a fairer, more equal country.
Powers over spending so we can stop wasting billions on nuclear weapons.
Powers over the economy so we can put jobs first.
And in an independent Scotland, we will have greater ability to protect our NHS.
So in this election if you want experienced leadership and a serious government to guide Scotland through the pandemic and into recovery please give both votes to the SNP.
If you want a bold, progressive plan for government with the remobilisation of the NHS at its heart make it both votes SNP.
If you believe that, when the Covid crisis is over, the people of Scotland should have the right to choose whether or not we become an independent country, then please cast both votes for the SNP.