"I am sorry" - Health Secretary Humza Yousaf apologies for ambulance and treatment waits for Scots

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has told Scots “I am sorry” over long waits for ­treatment in our crisis-hit NHS.

With three-quarters of a million people now waiting for treatment, appointments and tests, Yousaf told the Daily Record in an exclusive ­interview: “Everybody languishing on a waiting list is clearly an ­unacceptable situation. If you or a family member have waited for an ambulance too long, waited for treatment for too long, I am sorry.”

The under-fire Health Secretary told the Record he would leave “no stone unturned” to try to avoid a winter crisis in our hospitals. With waiting times at an all-time high, the ambulance service in crisis and a series of damaging strikes planned over pay, Yousaf insisted he was on top of the situation and rejected opposition calls to quit.

If strikes go ahead, Yousaf said he could draft in other emergency services to ferry people to hospitals And he also admitted he would consider suspending ­non-emergency surgery if hospital staff walk out.

He said: “We will continue with health boards to put in contingency should the worst happen. But we can’t get away from the fact that even with all that contingency in place, a strike would be really ­catastrophic for our health service given the pressures we are under.”

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf speaks to Daily Record Health Editor, Vivienne Aitken

Asked about calling in the Army should the strike proceed, Yousaf said: “The message very fairly from the MoD is they are under significant pressure. Given what is going on across the world and the pressures from health systems across the UK, the bar for any MoD support is extremely high. We are looking at other avenues, looking at other emergency services where they can assist.”

But he admitted that elective, non-emergency treatments could be halted if strikes go ahead, saying: “We have looked at conversations around what would need to be prioritised and what would have to give way. We can’t stop people having heart attacks and strokes, the only valve we have is elective care and reducing that or slowing that down. That is something I am very ­reluctant to do but clearly that is the only real pressure valve we have got.”

He added: “We’re doing ­everything we can to avert strikes,” and insisted the Scottish Government’s latest offer for NHS staff was fair. An increased pay offer of between £2205 to £2751 is on the table for health staff, which unions have agreed to put to members. The largest, Unison, is recommending acceptance but other unions are considering it.

Yousaf added: “In order to put this record pay offer on the table… we have to take really difficult decisions to reprofile money away from social care, mental health and primary care.”

The Health Secretary has faced constant calls to quit in recent weeks because of waiting times but he insisted he wants to stay and sort out the problems facing the NHS.

He said: “I spend every waking moment trying to resolve the issues of the health service. I will leave no stone unturned as long as I am in this role to ensure we get the necessary investment our health and social care systems require to provide you with the standard of care you deserve.

“I am father to two girls who mean everything to me and I would not want them having to wait long periods of time for treatment or ­diagnosis if it ever came to it, I don’t see myself as Humza Yousaf the politician but Humza Yousaf the father, the husband, the son. It is important to put myself in others’ shoes to truly empathise with them.”

In an honest assessment of the crisis facing the NHS, Yousaf said it would take “years” to properly get the NHS back on its feet after lockdown and Covid. He said: “None of us were able to foresee the significant impact the pandemic would have, we have also been hit by extraordinarily high ­inflation costs and the cost-of-living crisis, which is a public health crisis.

“We are seeing events that have a seismic impact on health and social care hitting us year after year after year so I can’t account for what will happen in the next five years. But in five years’ time I would expect a vastly improved health and social care system.” But he did admit: “In five years there will still be challenges in the NHS, the ­financial forecast is pretty gloomy.”

Although quick to blame Covid for the waiting list crisis, he conceded: “Not every issue is down to the pandemic but it has not just exacerbated those challenges but taken them to a whole new level. And if you look at the statistics by almost any metric, you would not see figures like these pre-pandemic.

“When you have to pause elective surgery and care for over a year, you’re going to have an increased backlog. But when you dig underneath the numbers, you begin to see some elements of recovery. We are seeing more treatment time guarantee patients than we have ever seen before in the pandemic, that’s positive.

“Although the rate of those on waiting lists is increasing, when you look at things like treatment time guarantees, that rate of increase is slowing down.”

Yousaf said he would “never” agree to patients paying for treatment

But he admitted: “It is still increasing … but it is slowing down so all the effort and investment that we are putting in to tackle waiting times is turning that tanker. The NHS is like a giant oil tanker. It takes time to turn round and we are beginning to see the fruits but that is pretty cold comfort for anyone who has been waiting for operations or treatment for two years.

“But I can give them an assurance that bringing waiting times down is an absolute focus of mine and the Government’s.”

Yousaf refused to be drawn on what the Scottish Government could do to bring in more money for the NHS. Interim Finance Secretary John Swinney is under pressure to follow the UK Government’s lead and lower the threshold for the higher tax rate to those earning £125,000 or more.

But Yousaf insisted Tory economic mismanagement and inflation were the biggest threats to his budget.

Yousaf called on the UK Government to ‘step up’

He said: “What we can do is limited when you see inflation alone is impacting my health and social care budget to the tune of £650million. You can’t just find £650million through efficiencies or down the back of the sofa. We need the UK Government to step up. They are the architects of the crisis we are seeing. They need to make right their errors.”

Yousaf was resolute that he would “never” agree to patients paying for treatment – the “two tier” NHS discussed by health board chiefs in leaked minutes reported last week.

He stated: “It shouldn’t even be discussed. If it was brought to my attention, I would be telling anyone in the NHS very firmly that I don’t have a millisecond of time to be discussing issues such as charging patients for treatment regardless of how wealthy or otherwise they are.

“The NHS and its founding ­principles are, to me, paramount and my job as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is to preserve those founding principles. I take that job as a custodian of those founding principles very seriously.”

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