Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, Mr Yousaf said the government has a “really good record” on NHS staffing, and indicated the pandemic as the cause of current shortages and pressure on staff.
The health service is still under “extraordinary pressure” he said, adding that a new Covid variant is the biggest threat to recovery.
It comes after a report from Audit Scotland published in February identified major staff recruitment and retention issues in the NHS, and said the service will need reform in order to be financially sustainable.
Auditor General Stephen Boyle told the committee last week that workforce availability and wellbeing are the biggest risks to reform.
It will be “challenging” to achieve the recruitment goals outlined in the Scottish Government’s national workforce strategy, he said, adding that “we know, and have previously reported, that the NHS has, historically, struggled to achieve all its staffing ambitions.”
Quoting the Auditor Generals words, Labour MSP Paul O’Kane asked Mr Yousaf if he would acknowledge “a historic failure and a historic challenge to deliver a workforce plan" and “failures to meet staffing targets pre-pandemic”.
Mr Yousaf replied: “I think we’ve got a good record on NHS staffing.
“We’ve grown the NHS workforce by over 28,500 under this government since September 2006. Ten years of consecutive growth, record staffing across medical and dental consultants, nursing and midwifery, allied health professional groups, better paid staff… I think our record is good.”
He added: “But on the flipside of that I think there have been challenges around our workforce planning and the projections, which can be incredibly difficult at any time and blown frankly off course when you’re hit by a pandemic.
“That’s why the projections that we will get from health boards, the data we expect to receive from health boards this summer, will be hugely important to try to ensure that as best as possible our workforce plans meet the demands for future years on our health service.”
Asked again about workforce, and whether a reduction in nursing training places approved by Mr Yousaf’s predecessor had increased the problems, he said: “I will go back to what I think is a really good record of this government over the course of our time in government, and I think our record speaks volumes.”
Staff wellbeing will feature prominently in the government’s workforce plan, Mr Yousaf said, as it is “at the core” of retention.
He said: “Of course pay, terms and conditions are important, but those who are telling me they're thinking of leaving the NHS or social care are telling me that it is the wellbeing pressures and the mental health pressures that are forcing them to think about whether to leave the profession.
“I am desperate to try to avoid people leaving for that reason and so wellbeing will be central.”