Nicola Sturgeon was grilled over her record in office as NHS and education shortcomings came under fire from frontline staff during a live televised debate last night.
One angry nurse warned that staff are “demoralised” over low pay while teachers said Scotland’s exam system is in disarray, during the first Scottish TV leaders showdown of the election campaign.
Ms Sturgeon and the Scottish leaders of the Tories, Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip also clashed over Brexit and plans for a second independence referendum.
The First Minister warned that Scotland faces an “economic catastrophe” under the Tories’ plans for leaving the EU which would choke off vital immigration and slammed Westminster austerity cuts during the BBC Scotland clash.
Ms Sturgeon’s opponents accused her of focusing on a second independence referendum at the expense of public services.
But the fiercest exchanges came with audience members at the front line of public services in Scotland, including the nurse who said she had to use foodbanks due to years of a pay freeze.
READ MORE: RECAP: The Scotsman’s blog on the debate
She said: “There’s thousands and thousands of nurse positions unfilled and the reason for that is it’s such low pay. It’s just not a sustainable income, we can’t live on it.”
Nurses were considering leaving the profession, according to the nurse.
She added: “Do you think that is what nurses go into nursing for?
“I am telling you now I would rather leave nursing, as would many of my colleagues, than have to strike. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work within the NHS.”
But the SNP leader said: “My sister works in the National Health Service – believe me, she tells me exactly what she thinks about these matters.”
And while she said there had been a “really difficult period with public spending,” she stressed that the Scottish Government had a policy of no compulsory redundancies in the NHS and wider public sector.
The exchange prompted initial claims that the nurse involved was married to a Tory councillor but this was later denied by the BBC.
Teacher Louise Perry also hit out at shortcoming in the education system, demanding to know “where the fault lies for the recent failings for numeracy in schools”.
She said: “The Curriculum for Excellence has been panned by teachers. I am a teacher myself, I teach maths.”
Ms Perry voiced scepticism about government claims over “record” Higher and Advanced Higher passes in Scotland.
She said: “The standard of exams going out is absolutely disgraceful.”
Another teacher added: “Education is needing completely revamped – we need to get back to making sure that our children leave primary school with basic skills.”
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, urged the First Minister to ditch plans for another independence referendum, insisting: “The country said ‘No’ and you won’t listen to them.”
Ms Sturgeon accused Ms Davidson of using independence as a smokescreen for “toxic” policies.
She said: “[Ms Davidson] says I talk about nothing else. The truth is she talks so much about independence that I can’t get a word in edgeways about it.”
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said that, despite Scots having voted against both independence and Brexit in 2014 and 2016 respectively, “what we’ve got is hard Brexit and the SNP hell-bent on a second independence referendum”.
She said: “I want a Labour government, but if the polls are right, the Tories will be back and they will be more destructive than ever before.”
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the election was the chance to “build a brighter future” and to “turn away from another divisive referendum and a damaging hard Brexit”.