Hundreds of firefighters, military personnel and taxi drivers will be drafted in to help bail out Scotland’s crisis-hit ambulance service from this weekend as part of a package of “decisive and unconventional action to save lives”.
Details were confirmed days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sent a request for help from the Army to ease a backlog in the service that saw a man die at home after waiting 40 hours for paramedics.
Shocking delays for medical help have been reported across the country.
Ms Sturgeon finally admitted on Tuesday that Scotland’s NHS is in “crisis” following the publication of the worst A&E statistics on record.
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf confirmed in parliament more than 100 hundred military personnel will be deployed across Scotland from Saturday morning, including 88 drivers and 15 support staff, to help support ambulance workers.
Just minutes later, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stepped in to confirm the real number is 225.
“This will be the hardest winter the NHS has faced in any of our memories.”
– Nicola Sturgeon
A further 111 workers are being asked to operate Mobile Testing Units in a re-run of last year, when the military supported sites at the height of the pandemic.
Asked for clarification on the final number of personnel, the Scottish Government said the MoD would ultimately decide on the amount of staff deployed.
Mr Yousaf confirmed some firefighters will be redeployed to help drive ambulances in a bid to get a grip on the crisis, with taxis used in other cases to convey non-seriously ill patients who do not require emergency transport.
He said around 100 second year paramedic students will also be asked to help out in ambulance control rooms, while the number of hospital liaison officers at the busiest A&Es will be increased in a bid to admit patients more quickly.
Help in the Highlands
Some 14 additional staff members will be recruited to reduce on-call requirements in Campbeltown and remove them completely in Fort William, Kirkwall and Broadford.
Immediate work to create temporary admission wards in hospitals will also take place.
Mr Yousaf, who said the measures would be paid for as part of a £20 million investment package already announced in the NHS recovery plan, confirmed the plan will deliver a net increase of almost 300 ambulance service staff by April 2022.
The support will focus on services being delivered in Fife, the Highlands and Islands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran.
“I have reached out to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and I am glad to say, and in typical fashion, they have risen to our call,” Mr Yousaf told MSPs.
“They will scale up the ambulance service’s access to volunteer firefighters and now also fulltime firefighters for driving, again with the view to providing more valuable paramedic and technician time on the front line.
“Immediate assistance however is not just being sought from the wider public sector.
“We have also brought support both from British Red Cross and as well as private contractors, such as taxi companies, to help with some of the ambulance service’s work where no emergency ambulance is required.”
Time to ‘wake up’
The First Minister was challenged by opposition parties to “wake up” and deal with the “spiralling crisis” facing the NHS as she updated MSPs on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, calls had been made for the health secretary to “answer for his job” over the growing list of issues.
Tory health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane, who has continued to work part-time as a GP since being elected, told Ms Sturgeon the health service is now at “breaking point”.
The first minister said the health service is dealing with “crisis conditions as a result of a global pandemic” – but stressed this is the also case throughout the rest of the UK.
She also warned that “this will be the hardest winter the NHS has faced in any of our memories”.
Dr Gulhane said “shocking” waiting times, which have rocketed to the longest ever recorded in Scotland under the SNP’s watch, are risking lives.
“Behind every one of these appalling stats are patients and their families who are suffering but the first minister doesn’t think this is a crisis, somehow she won’t admit the reality and say that word,” he said.
“Wake up, Scotland’s NHS is at breaking point. This is a crisis.”
Scottish Labour will lead a debate on the “the lack of urgent response from the Scottish Government” at Holyrood on Wednesday.
The party is calling for temporary wards and field hospitals to ease the pressure on the NHS and the adoption of 30-minute maximum turnaround time for ambulances from arrival at hospital.
Treating Holyrood ‘with contempt’
Mr Yousaf was also rebuked by Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone before delivering his statement for revealing the details of the plan publicly before updating MSPs.
The health secretary apologised but was accused of treating Holyrood “with contempt” and warned further breaches could see ministers refused the opportunity to make a statement to parliament.