We’ll continue supporting the recovery of our NHS

The significant pressures on our National Health Service have dominated the news so far this year, and it is no exaggeration to say that this winter has probably been the most difficult ever faced by the NHS.

Our health and social care system, and the tens of thousands of dedicated women and men who work in it, has been dealing with a ‘perfect storm’ of factors and, combined, these have led to many delays and much disruption for patients and staff alike.

This ‘perfect storm’ encompasses the legacy and ongoing impact of the pandemic, higher than normal levels of flu and other respiratory illnesses, and workforce constraints exacerbated by Brexit.

All of this comes on top of more long standing challenges – in themselves positive developments – such as people living longer and ever increasing expectations of what modern healthcare can deliver.

Some of the solutions to these challenges involve continued long term reform to patient pathways and models of care – all within a universal, publicly owned NHS, free at the point of need – and so will take time.

However, more immediately, we are now seeing some easing of the shorter term pressures associated with winter.

For example, though challenges remain, there have been improvements in A&E waiting times in the last couple of weeks. A higher proportion of patients are being seen, treated or discharged with 4 hours.

And the proportions waiting more than 8 or 12 hours have fallen sharply – by around 40% each since the turn of the year.

While there is no room for complacency, all of this is welcome and I am cautiously optimistic it is a sign that the recent period of very extreme pressure is now coming to an end.

In combatting all of the pressures on our health and social care service, there are no easy solutions – especially at a time when the Scottish Government has limited financial resources – but we are clear we need to maintain our emphasis on doing everything we can to help the service through the remainder of the winter and into spring.

Since the New Year, I have chaired regular meetings of the Scottish Government Resilience committee to ensure focus on the part of government and our partners on the actions we need to take.

And there is much good work being done – for example, the Scottish Ambulance Service ‘See & Treat’ initiative is helping care for more patients at scene so they don’t have to go to hospital.

NHS24 – which is recruiting additional staff – also provides a range of advice and care that is helping reduce attendance at and admission to hospital.

We are also taking further steps to tackle delayed discharge, including funding of £8 million to secure up to 300 additional interim care home beds.

Additionally, patients who no longer need to be in hospital – and whose interests are therefore not best served by being there – are being urgently reassessed and those clinically safe to be discharged will be moved home or to an interim placement in a care home, freeing up beds for those most in need.

These measures will help address some of the key issues across the health and social care systems – easing delayed discharge by purchasing additional care beds for those who are fit to leave hospital, and ensuring additional and adequate resource is in place for NHS 24 to provide advice and care for people without the need for them to go to other parts of the NHS.
In addition to these shorter-term measures, we have started to lay the groundwork for vital longer-term reforms – including the first steps to establish a National Care Service, designed to deliver improvements both for people receiving care and the staff who provide care for them.

We have also appointed a Women’s Health Champion to help improve access to health care and reduce inequalities in health outcomes for women and girls.

Professor Anna Glasier, who has had a long and distinguished career in women’s reproductive health, will work with partners in the NHS and across the public and third sectors to drive improvements in specialist menopause services, menstrual heath, including endometriosis, and heart health.

These medium and longer term reforms will, I believe, make a real difference to our healthcare system.

Scotland’s NHS is one of our most precious assets.

I, with the Health Secretary and other colleagues, will continue to do everything we can to support its recovery from the pressures it has faced in recent years, not least as a result of a global pandemic, and ensure that the people of Scotland continue to receive the care and treatment they need.

To finish where I started, I know that the last few years have been really tough, and our health and social care staff have been heroes in the most trying of circumstances.

Whether in hospitals, the ambulance service, NHS 24, across social care, in GP surgeries and many other settings, health and care workers continue to make extraordinary efforts.

I am enormously grateful for their dedication and commitment to delivering the high-quality care for which our NHS is respected the world over.

This article originally appeared in the Glasgow Evening Times.