How SNP Health Secretaries created the NHS staffing crisis – Ian Murray

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An SNP Health Secretary creates a staffing crisis in the NHS by failing to deliver a workforce strategy.
In 2012, Nicola Sturgeon took a fateful decision to reduce student nursing places (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)In 2012, Nicola Sturgeon took a fateful decision to reduce student nursing places (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
In 2012, Nicola Sturgeon took a fateful decision to reduce student nursing places (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Then they become First Minister and the health service faces an emergency, while someone else is left to clear up the mess. Amidst the chaos, nurses are overworked and placed under too much pressure, while patients suffer because the government hasn’t resourced the NHS properly.

This is what happened when a Health Secretary called Nicola Sturgeon took the decision in 2012 to reduce student nursing places. A “sensible way forward”, she claimed. Can you guess what happened next?

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By 2018, when Sturgeon had become First Minister, there was a workforce crisis in the NHS. The number of nursing and midwifery vacancies in NHS Scotland had risen by an eye-watering 353 per cent since the SNP government started cutting training places.

In the words of Anas Sarwar, who was Labour’s health spokesperson at the time, Sturgeon was guilty of a “spectacular error of judgement”. And the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the SNP government had “failed to future-proof the workforce”.

Fast forward five years, and we have another First Minister who is also a former Health Secretary. And, once again, there is a workforce crisis in the NHS with the impact on current staff and patients huge. We see this all too well locally with a GP crisis and an A&E bursting at the seams.

The RCN’s annual nursing workforce report found that the number of staff quitting has reached an alarming rate. The number of registered nurses leaving increased to 4,238 in the year to March 2022, the highest annual total in ten years – in other words, since Sturgeon made a complete mess of the NHS.

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And with nearly 600 fewer nursing students starting university in autumn 2022 than the government's recommended target of 4,536, Humza Yousaf clearly failed to learn from Sturgeon’s errors while he was Health Secretary. Michael Matheson, his replacement, has inherited a crisis created by Yousaf. Another spectacular error of judgement.

As Kate Forbes rightly asked of Yousaf, “as health minister, we've got record high waiting times... what makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?" That’s the question people across Scotland are now asking.

The government needs to listen to the RCN and the workforce, and give them the support and resources they need. There are many other problems in the NHS that also need addressed. For example, nearly 15,000 people waited over eight hours at A&E departments in March, while the number of bed days lost to delayed discharge remains far higher than pre-pandemic levels. And delayed discharge is a contributor to the waiting times scandal.

But better workforce planning is one of the most important issues that needs prioritised. Back when he was Labour’s health spokesperson, Sarwar set up an expert NHS and social care workforce commission, in recognition of the vital need to plan for the future. I hope the tradition of health spokespeople becoming First Minister continues, because Anas will get to grips with the workforce crisis and give nurses the resources and recognition they deserve.

Ian Murray is Labour MP for Edinburgh South