Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to call in military help to assist the over-stretched Scottish ambulance service has been welcomed by alarmed MSPs – who warned it must not be a smokescreen for government failure.
On Thursday, the first minister announced she had called the military in to deal with out-of-control ambulance waiting times, after emergency workers started dealing with around 10,000 more calls a month than the same time last summer.
A number of people have endured excruciatingly long waits for an ambulance – including a 65-year-old man who died after a 40-hour wait for an ambulance.
We’ve also revealed how an 88-year-old disabled man with dementia waited 15 hours for help in Montrose.
An Aberdeen woman in her 80s waited 13 hours and was then given help when her son pleaded for help on social media.
And a 62-year-old man from Argyll who had a heart attack and was told no ambulance was available was eventually taken to hospital by a neighbour.
Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and the Conservatives’ shadow health minister, and Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said they’re please the Army is involved but say more should have been done earlier to stop the problem getting so bad.
Government using Covid as a ‘smokescreen’
Dr Gulhane, speaking the day after the decision, revealed his own experience of the problem and said: “I am not against the Army being recruited, I am in favour of that.
“In 2018 I called for an ambulance for a patient of mine and it took eight hours for the ambulance to arrive, so this is not a new problem for the government or the ambulance service.”
He added: “The SNP government is using Covid as a smokescreen for everything.
“We need to get waiting lists down, get hospitals seeing patients again, because that is causing a huge demand on GPs.
“On Monday I saw 80 patients, and that is not safe or sustainable, and it causes patients to overspill into A&E.”
▶️We're facing a period of significant and sustained pressure on our services, so please watch this video and #Useuswisely.
▶️Call NHS24 on 111, or call your GP if during the day, unless the situation is life-threatening, in which case call 999 right away. pic.twitter.com/syRyd7y81p
— Scottish Ambulance (@Scotambservice) August 26, 2021
“Let’s get patients moving through the NHS and then we will see improvements in everything, and not ambulances queuing around the block and record A&E waiting times.
“Scotland is a country that had someone waiting 40 hours to get an ambulance and then died, and that is horrific if you consider us to be an advanced nation.”
Government has ‘taken eye off the ball’
Ms Baillie added: “I very much welcome the involvement of the British Army, but it demonstrates the ambulance service and the NHS is in crisis, well before the winter starts.
“The government has taken its eye off the ball and should have acted earlier.
“Long delays were happening in late June, and I met with the ambulance service in July about this and wrote to the health secretary, so he knew about these long delays and took three months to act.
“In that time people have died, and we don’t expect that in a country like Scotland.
“The service is incapable of dealing with demand.
“We knew the NHS was shortstaffed, had insufficient beds and rising Covid numbers, and people are presenting with more complex problems, and it took three months to act.”
Yousaf ‘reckless’ and ‘irresponsible’
The pair criticised Health Secretary Humza Yousaf for comments he made earlier in the week when he warned the public to “think twice” before calling 999 for an ambulance.
Ms Baillie said: “In my constituency people are actually stopping themselves from going to hospital and are waiting until their condition is more complex and serious.
“And part of the problem when they do go to A&E is that there are no beds there.
“It is hugely irresponsible for the health secretary to tell people to think twice and shame them into not phoning for an ambulance when they are in dire need.”
Dr Gulhane added: “I absolutely agree with Jackie Baillie, his comments were reckless and endanger people’s lives.”
What did Nicola Sturgeon announce?
On Thursday, Ms Sturgeon insisted services are facing “acute pressure” because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and said ambulance crews are “responding heroically to these challenges”.
She told parliament: “I apologise unreservedly to anyone who has suffered or is suffering unacceptably long waits.”
The first minister said “targeted military assistance” was being considered to help ease the pressures, as has already happened in England, and the Ministry of Defence confirmed hours later it had received a request from the Scottish Government under the Military Aid to Civilian Authority process.
Quieter wards in hospitals could also be temporarily requisitioned to allow ambulances to drop off patients, so they can get back on the road and deal with other 999 calls.