Retired and former healthcare workers could be drafted in to help keep the NHS afloat amid a warning from the first minister that services face a “very, very challenging winter”.
Nicola Sturgeon said hospitals were already under “intense pressure” but insisted there was no shortage of beds or staff for the moment, and treatment centres still have enough capacity to cope.
Speaking ahead of first minister’s questions on Thursday, the SNP leader announced a further 39 coronavirus deaths and 1,216 positive tests, as she warned the R number – or rate of transmission – is still “hovering around one”.
Scottish Conservatives Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson asked Ms Sturgeon about a warning from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow that the NHS faces “an impending winter storm” due to staff shortages and a lack of beds.
Ms Sturgeon and said both she and health secretary Jeane Freeman “look closely” at the capacity in hospitals and intensive care units across the country on a daily basis but admitted there was “no room for complacency”.
She said her government was “working hard to ensure that the capacity of our National Health Service is managed in a way that we can cope with whatever Covid-19 throws at us over the winter, and also as far as possible continue to treat without cancellation of election or planned operations”.
But Ms Davidson said the Scottish Government’s Winter Preparedness Plan, released last week, fails to consider how to replace 3,000 student doctors and nurses who helped the NHS during the first wave of the virus.
The plan states it would “not be appropriate” to use medical students to deal with staff shortages but the Tory group leader warned this will leave a “very substantial gap” and called on the government to consider the issue carefully.
She said: “We know from the stark intervention from the heads of the Royal Colleges of their grave reservations for how prepared we really are for the pressures of winter.
“The winter preparedness plan gives no detail of how it will find or recruit extra staff in the absence of student mobilisation.
“Doctors and nurses are already under pressure and they need reinforcements, so can the first minister give details of where that recruitment will come from?”
Ms Sturgeon said the health secretary was now working on a “winter workforce plan” and the NHS is able access the General Medical Council’s emergency register and recruit from a “pool” of retired and former healthcare workers.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who spoke in the chamber after addressing a Unison rally outside, said absences in the NHS due to stress and poor mental health had been rising for years and the pandemic was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Mr Leonard cited a freedom of information request that showed 790,269 staff hours – more than a third of all NHS Scotland sickness – was lost to illness related to mental health in April, May and June this year.
‘Will you deliver fair pay for our NHS workers?’
He said: “Workforce shortages were already having a profound impact on staff and their workloads long before the pandemic. NHS staff have risen to the challenge and we cannot ignore the toll that Covid has had on them.”
Mr Leonard told the first minister about Wilma Brown, an NHS Unison rep in Fife, who had spoken at a meeting about how “everything is a fight” when it comes to reaching an agreement with the government.
He said: “NHS workers like Wilma want to prioritise the fight on Covid but the government is making them fight to prove their own worth. Will you deliver fair pay for our NHS workers – no ifs, no buts, no strings?”
Ms Sturgeon said she worried “deeply” about the strain staff had been under and promised plans were in place to help support their mental health.
She said discussions were also ongoing with trade unions about a pay settlement and she wanted to see the country’s debt of gratitude to NHS workers repaid in cash.