NHS crisis: SNP Health Secretary Humza Yousaf snapping at disgruntled nurses shows he's rattled – Alex Cole-Hamilton

On the margins of the SNP conference in Aberdeen, a group of nurses confronted Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf was confronted by nurses on the sidelines of the SNP conference in Aberdeen (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf was confronted by nurses on the sidelines of the SNP conference in Aberdeen (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Aware the cameras were on him, Yousaf made comforting noises as the nurses made their case for better pay and conditions. But there was a point in the discussion where everything changed.

One of the nurses, clearly frustrated at the Cabinet Secretary’s comment “I hear you”, said “hearing and listening are two different things”. To which Yousaf replied, “I know, let’s not patronise each other”.

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He has been roundly condemned for snapping back in this way and, to my mind, it underscores the reality: he is deeply rattled and he should be. There is a crisis exploding in our NHS and Yousaf has nobody to blame but himself and the SNP ministers before him.

The problem in nursing is acute. One whistleblower told me last month that the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh begins every shift with as many as 80 nurses fewer than it needs to operate safely.

Things are so bad that nurses are sometimes moved out of an over-stretched intensive care ward to staff other wards that would otherwise have no one looking after them. This is three years after parliament passed a law that was supposed to guarantee safe staffing levels on wards.

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Pay is part of it, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats support the Royal College of Nurses’s demands in that regard, but we need to do more to recruit and retain nurses.

My party has repeatedly called for a burnout prevention strategy to support overworked staff and an NHS staff assembly so they can offer suggestions for how to get the service on a sustainable footing. Sadly, these proposals have been voted down by SNP and Green MSPs.

While the SNP continually point to the pandemic to excuse their inadequacies, the warning lights had been flashing across the dashboard of our NHS long before anyone had heard of Covid.

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Take emergency care. Last week the Scot Lib Dems revealed evidence that some patients are waiting up to 33 hours for an ambulance. Week after week we are seeing horrendous news stories of people waiting in pain.

It's no wonder that the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that these delays are leading to hundreds of avoidable deaths. That alone needs an urgent national inquiry.

Delays in the ambulance service and A&E are often caused because patients back up in A&E for want of a bed in the main hospital. On any given day, well over 1,000 Scottish patients, well enough to go home but too frail to do so without a social care package that just isn’t available, are occupying hospital beds.

These problems stem from poor planning by the Scottish Government.

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What keeps me awake at night is the fact that we’ve got people falling and waiting for hours for an ambulance and we haven’t even seen the first frost of winter yet.

Years of SNP disinterest are coming home to roost and it’s ordinary people who are forced to pay the price. The nation's health should be the government’s highest priority. To get to grips with this crisis, the Health Secretary will need to do more than just snap at disgruntled nurses.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western