You wouldn’t think a sensible remark like “Think twice before you call an ambulance” could cause a political row. But the Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has found himself at the centre of a storm of protest, whipped up by the press and opposition politicians.
And the reason is that he has touched a sore point, an anxious debate over how much the National Health Service should be expected to do for us.
Ambulance turn-up times and queues at A&E departments have been increasing for some time, but they have become far worse because of the Covid crisis and the backlog of treatments for other illnesses. The issue has been rumbling away all week, ever since that appeal by Mr Yousaf to avoid calling an ambulance for non-emergency cases. Predictably, the Conservative and Labour party leaders who criticised him for “putting lives at risk” on Tuesday, turned up at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday with horror stories of seriously ill patients being left lying for eight hours, or even 40 hours, because too many ambulance crews were being called out to trivial cases.
Nicola Sturgeon was forced to apologise for such “unacceptable” delays and she promised to contact the Army to ask for their assistance. The Ambulance Service is currently recruiting another 300 staff. But that takes time.
And actually, the problem goes deeper, because once an ambulance brings a patient to an accident department, there are often long delays in having them admitted. And further delays in patients being treated. Only 74 per cent of patients are treated within the four hour target. Ms Sturgeon says she’s never seen our hospitals under such strain and there are fears the winter will be worse.
More resources are indeed being made available. Another £1.1 billion has been earmarked for the health and care services each year, Scotland’s share of the Johnson government’s rise in National Insurance contributions. No doubt that won’t be enough. It seems to me that to avoid this constant funding crisis, the political parties should be leading a debate on how much of the national budget should be spent on the health and care services – already it’s £15 billion or 40 per cent. It’s an awkward question because most of the spending goes on the very old in their last few years of life, when most people could afford to pay for their own care out of their pensions, capital or savings.
In the immediate Covid crisis, case numbers in Scotland are still high, around 5,000 a day with over 1,000 in hospital and deaths running at an average of around seven a day, taking the total to 10,688. This has prompted The Scottish Government along with advice from the Chief Medical Officers in England and Wales to begin offering vaccines to 12-15 year olds and, in contrast to the other nations, to stick to its policy of vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and football matches from the beginning of October.
The police have continued to show us footage of how they will deal with trouble-makers at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November. We see “protesters” forced to lie on the ground, or stand with hands behind their backs with taser guns pointed at them. The build-up to the conference is becoming more intense, just as a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries, including Britain, found that 60 per cent of them were worried or extremely worried about climate change.
On Wednesday the Conservatives staged a debate in parliament on the controversial Cambo oil field off Shetland. They are in favour of going ahead with it as a necessary part of the transition out of oil and into renewables. But MPs voted by 68 to 55 in favour of a compromise motion which talked of “reassessing all existing licences” for oil fields. Alas we never found out what the SNP line is on Cambo.
Nor are we sure what the SNP government thinks of the Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde which it rescued in 2019. It has failed to make the shortlist for building the next two ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne. It’s shocking to think they will be built in Poland or Romania or Turkey. All the Finance Secretary Kate Forbes was able to tell MSPs was that she would ensure Ferguson’s complete the two ferries they are currently building, “no ifs, not buts”. They are already three years late and at £110 million, double the original budget.
The police in Glasgow have another delicate task on their hands before the climate conference. On Saturday, the Orange Order is staging a series of parades through the city, likely to involve up to 10,000 people. The marching bands have not been able to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne (1690) for the last two summers because of Covid. There have been appeals to march gently past any Catholic churches on the routes and to ensure the orange-sashed stewards keep a firm grip on trouble-makers. The organisers say it’s a family day out and an innocent celebration of Ulster-Scots culture. The police are there to ensure it doesn’t descend into a sectarian scrum.
Finally, there is to be no breach of the peace on Luskentyre beach on Harris in the Western Isles. A petition signed by over 10,000 people has persuaded a developer to abandon plans to build a campsite of “glamping pods” on the beach’s grassy machair. The petition, raised by local people, says the pods would spoil the natural beauty of the world-famous beach and damage its fragile ecology.
Thank goodness there are still quiet beaches like Luskentyre where we can escape the hustle of the world, the pandemics, the silly cabinet reshuffles and strident marching bands.
We need places to restore ourselves for the real battle, saving the planet.