Ambulance crisis caused by more than pandemic, senior surgeon warns

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A majority of the issues in Scotland’s hospitals and the knock-on effect to the ambulance service are not due to Covid, a top surgeon has said.

Professor Michael Griffin, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, warned Scotland has “a real workforce problem in the NHS and in social care” that needs to be addressed and it is causing a “vicious circle” impacting all parts of the health service.

He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme that increasing numbers of Covid cases and infected patients in hospitals are adding to the “very, very complex problem” facing the health service – including under pressure paramedics.

It comes after the Scottish Government officially requested help from the army to support the ambulance service amid deteriorating response times.

“It’s not just due to Covid,” Prof Griffin said, adding that the pandemic is responsible for “probably 30-40% of the issues that we’re seeing”.

He said: “With the reduction in elective surgery in many of the health boards across Scotland, it’s not just Covid.

“It has a significant contribution, but there are other multiple factors involved and it’s quite a complex situation.

“We have staff absences from illness, recruitment and isolation, such that we’re not able to staff certain areas.

“There’s a real problem with getting patients out of hospitals at the moment and into social care, because there is a care home workforce crisis which is causing issues and bed blocking.”

Addressing the specific problems facing paramedics and waits for ambulances, Prof Griffin continued: “If the hospital beds are all full, it’s extremely difficult for the ambulance drivers to get their patients into hospital, on to trolleys, into A&E and into beds if they need admission.

“It is a bit of a vicious circle.”

Warning the “huge backlogs” in the NHS will take years to address, he welcomed the Scottish Government’s recovery plan and proposals for diagnostic hubs as “really good steps forward”.

But he added: “They’re not going to be any good to us in the short-term unless we can staff them and at the moment we are very much short of nursing staff to be able to staff them.

“It’s all very well having surgeons and having anaesthetists, but if we don’t have the extended surgical team and the crucial nursing staff and other healthcare workers, we can’t actually do our jobs.”

First Minister’s Questions
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the coronavirus pandemic is the main cause of problems with ambulance response times (Andy Buchanan/PA)

The comments appear to contradict Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence that the crisis in the ambulance service is “largely caused by the Covid pressure” and it is “the latest in a number of significant challenges posed to us as a result of this pandemic”.

During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon apologised to people who had endured long waits for ambulances, including the family of 65-year-old Gerald Brown, from Glasgow, who died while waiting 40 hours for treatment.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar urged Ms Sturgeon: “Please do not use the pandemic as cover for your Government’s failure,” as he described reports of people dying or being left in agony while waiting for ambulances as an “avoidable human tragedy”.

The First Minister replied: “I accept there were pressures on the ambulance service, as there were pressures on the entirety of our health service before this pandemic.

“But I do think anybody who suggests that the pandemic is not a significant contributory factor to what our health service is dealing with right now is stretching credibility.

“The pandemic has created the most challenging conditions for our National Health Service probably since the National Health Service was created and that is being felt acutely in Scotland.”

Sturgeon visits Scottish Ambulance Service call handlers
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon listens into a 999 call during a previous tour of a Scottish Ambulance Service call centre (Garry F McHarg/Daily Record/PA)

Pauline Howie, chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service, told Good Morning Scotland: “We’re currently experiencing an unprecedented period of significant and sustained demand on our services.

“That’s a result of increasing Covid-19 cases and also increasing non-Covid demand through illnesses and injuries.

“We’ve seen increased turnaround times at hospitals and staff absences due to isolating and these factors are all causing these unacceptable delays for patients.”

Asked what the winter will hold for the ambulance teams, she said: “It’s going to be extremely challenging, there’s no doubt about it.

“That’s why we’re looking at a whole range of measures to see what else we can possibly do ahead of winter to put in place capacity, not just in the ambulance service but across the whole of the health and care system.”

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