Nicola Sturgeon has admitted that wait times for ambulances are “not good enough”, with patients now waiting an average of six hours.
Challenged by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross over deteriorating response times for the emergency service, the First Minister argued that problems had been “significantly exacerbated” by the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that the long waits being reported were “not acceptable” and insisted the Scottish Government were working with the Scottish Ambulance Service to improve the situation.
“We know the pressure the ambulance service is under right now because of many of the other pressures in our National Health Service that have been caused and indeed exacerbated in some respects by the pandemic,” she said.
“While any individual wait is unacceptable – and we need to work to resolve that – it is worth bearing in mind that, despite all of the challenges and despite our ambulance service serving some of the most rural areas in the UK, over 2020-2021 our crews responded to over 70% of the highest priority calls in under 10 minutes and over 99% in under 30 minutes.”
Douglas Ross argued that problems “started long before Covid-19”, citing Scottish Ambulance Service surveys from 2018 and 2019 suggesting a fifth of the workforce believed there were not enough staff.
“Just yesterday, the Unite convener of the Scottish Ambulance Service said serious adverse events have been on an upward trajectory; since the start of the year they have gone through the roof,” Mr Ross said.
Ms Sturgeon replied: “There were pressures before Covid but I don’t think anybody can or should deny that those pressures have been significantly exacerbated by Covid.”
Quoting the figures for the week ending September 5, Ms Sturgeon said ambulance crews responded to 10,435 emergencies and the response time for immediately life-threatening incidents was nine minutes and 30 seconds, describing it as “not good enough”.
Emergencies in the “amber” category of risk experienced an average wait of 21 minutes 26 seconds, Ms Sturgeon added.
She said: “That’s slightly higher than we want it to be – the target is seven minutes – so the ambulance service is working hard under incredibly challenging circumstances.
“My job and the Health Secretary’s job is to support them through funding and other support to make sure that they can meet these challenges for the sake of the patients.”
Mr Ross gave examples of a patient in Dumfries who called for an ambulance at 2.30pm after suffering a suspected stroke but paramedics did not turn up until 4.45am the following morning, as well as a father whose son collapsed on a roadside and, with no ambulance in attendance within half an hour, drove the 17-year-old to the hospital himself.
In response, Ms Sturgeon addressed the father and said: “I’m extremely sorry that the wait you had happened and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
She continued: “We know that our Accident and Emergency (departments) are under pressure, we know that is a backlog of treatment so one of the issues that the ambulance service faces is longer turnaround times which then puts a lot of pressure on ambulance resources.
“I recognise all of this and we are working hard with the ambulance service to address that.”
Prior to FMQs, Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “Paramedics, nurses and doctors are doing the very best that they can but the NHS is in crisis.
“The Scottish Government has lost control and the Cabinet Secretary is nowhere to be seen.
“Patients and staff deserve so much better than this.”