A move by GPs to focus only on the most serious cases shows that NHS services have been “pushed past breaking point”, Labour has claimed.
Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie criticised changes in NHS Lanarkshire which will see GP surgeries move to a “managed suspension of services”, which will mean doctors will only focus on the most urgent and time-critical care.
The health board declared a black alert – the most severe warning it has – in October last year but the Scottish Labour deputy leader and health spokesperson said NHS Lanarkshire had gone further and had to brief staff on its “never services” protocol, measures which are designed to protect services that cannot be stopped.
“It is beyond a shadow of doubt that our NHS is in the midst of an historic crisis,” Ms Baillie said.
“This unprecedented move reveals how dangerous the situation really is. Not long ago escalating to risk level black was almost unheard of, but now not even that is enough.
“Staff are working tirelessly to do right by patients, but services have been pushed past breaking point.”
And Dr Sandesh Gulhane, the shadow health secretary for the Scottish Conservatives, called on the Government to put the health board on the highest supervision level “until this crisis is resolved” and that the service suspension was “further proof of the health secretary’s lack of a coherent plan to deal with the huge pressures on Scotland’s health service”.
“Humza Yousaf must urgently come up with a strategy for managing the NHS crisis,” he said.
NHS Lanarkshire said it was dealing with record Covid case numbers and ongoing staff sickness absences, and that the “managed suspension of services” would be in place for the next four weeks.
Dr Linda Findlay, medical director at South Lanarkshire Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “This change to GP practices will help us deal with the continuing challenges in community services and help reduce the pressure across the whole system, including our acute hospitals which are under sustained pressure.”
GPs will continue to deliver services, it insisted, but will focus on urgent care, including the assessment of people with respiratory or coronavirus symptoms.
Dr Keith McIntyre, chairman of Lanarkshire GP sub-committee, said: “People should continue to contact their GP practice for urgent issues, such as if they think they have symptoms of cancer.”
He said doctors are asking residents for their “continued help and support during this challenging time”, and he highlighted a “number of alternatives where people can turn to for health care”, including local pharmacies, the NHS Inform website and NHS24, which he said will allow GP surgeries to “focus on the most urgent of cases”.
He added: “The services provided under this change will vary between practices depending on their individual circumstances.
“However, GPs will continue to see patients in-person as and when it is appropriate.”
In October, NHS Lanarkshire declared a black alert and said it was at critical occupancy levels because of overall pressure on the health system.
At the time, the health board’s deputy chief executive Laura Ace said the sustained pressure was “unprecedented” and showed no signs of easing.
The Labour deputy leader and health spokesperson said alarm bells “had been sounding for months on end” but that the “SNP failed to respond”.
“Our NHS is in critical condition. The SNP need to wake up to the scale of the emergency we face and deliver urgent support for NHS Lanarkshire and the rest of our struggling health boards, as well as a real long-term recovery plan,” she said.
And Dr Gulhane, Tory MSP for the Glasgow region, described the suspension as “deeply worrying for patients” and added: “There is a staffing shortage across our NHS – and it’s particularly acute in GP services. As a practising GP myself, I know the immense stress colleagues are under.
“Humza Yousaf must urgently come up with a strategy for managing the NHS crisis.
“His efforts to ease pressure on A&E departments saw him direct patients from emergency wards towards GP services whenever possible. But NHS Lanarkshire’s announcement shows that this has only shunted patients from one under-resourced part of the health service to another.”