Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has talked down suggestions the Army could be used to set up field hospitals to help the NHS cope with the dual strains of Covid and winter, but refused to rule it out.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has conceded the health service is dealing with “crisis conditions as a result of a global pandemic”, and firefighters and the armed forces are being drafted in to help the struggling Scottish Ambulance Service, with the prospect of taxi drivers also being used to transport non-urgent patients.
The Army is to deploy 114 drivers and support staff to help the ambulance service, with a further 111 personnel being used to staff mobile testing units.
Military staff are expected to be driving ambulances in Scotland from this weekend, for at least a couple of months.
Mr Yousaf said if Army assistance is needed for longer he is “hopeful that could be accommodated”.
Opposition politicians have suggested the military might be better used in field hospitals, to help the NHS deal with coronavirus cases at the same time as it tries to clear the backlog of patients that built up earlier in the pandemic.
Mr Yousaf refused to rule out such a move, but stressed there would be difficulties.
The Health Secretary told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “The difficulty is you could easily set up beds – we have beds and equipment to do that – what we don’t have is the workforce.
“And the Army don’t have a huge pool of doctors that are just sitting there not doing anything. In fact the full-time doctors are very much based in the NHS and then if they have to go to deployment in armed service they get permission from the NHS to go and join army personnel overseas.”
Speaking about field hospitals he said: “I definitely wouldn’t rule it out entirely but we have to look at whether or not we would end up pulling people out of acute sites at the moment to staff those beds.”
He spoke after Brigadier Ben Wrench, commander of Joint Military Command Scotland, confirmed military drivers would be behind the wheel of ambulances from this weekend, while staff working in mobile testing units would be deployed from next Wednesday.
Brig Wrench, speaking on the same programme, stressed military staff would “not be undertaking any clinical duties”.
He said: “For the driver tasks they will receive the training from the Scottish Ambulance Service before they get crewed up with ambulance technicians or paramedics, and you will see them driving ambulance vehicles but not the emergency task vehicles, and we will not be undertaking any clinical duties.”
Army personnel will be “effectively crewed up and paired alongside a technician or paramedic and they will be driving those medical experts around, they won’t be driving blue light emergency vehicles”.
He added: “I suppose what we are looking at is they will be releasing those other qualified drivers to backfill in where they are needed elsewhere in the ambulance service.”