Proposals to allocate £600 million to address the backlog in procedures and appointments in the health service caused by the coronavirus pandemic would come from elsewhere in the NHS budget, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has said.
Launching his party’s manifesto on Monday in Glasgow, Mr Ross said there would have to be tough decisions made to address the number of cancelled operations and other delays caused in the last year.
The 55 page document, which was accompanied by costings for all policies excluding where the funding for the backlog injection would come from, laid out the Tories’ offering if the party were to take the reins of government on May 6.
The Moray MP said the document was designed to “rebuild Scotland”, by increasing teacher numbers by 3,000, while also investing in infrastructure and job creation.
Speaking to the PA news agency after the launch, Mr Ross said: “It will take difficult decisions, but we will have to prioritise some of that budget to focus on getting treatment times down because even before Covid-19, there was a long wait for appointments and operations, a lot of those were stopped immediately at the start of the first lockdown and therefore we have built up a number of major problems.
“I think people will accept I’m being honest with them – it’s not going to be easy decisions – but will accept we’ve got to reprioritise some of the NHS budget to put that £600 million into getting down our treatment times, for the delayed operations and appointments that have been missed.”
The funding, Mr Ross said, would be given directly to “clinicians at the frontline” to help to reduce backlogs in their specific services.
He vehemently denied this policy was an attempt at post-Covid-19 austerity, pointing to the £2 billion increase over the next five years which was included in the party’s manifesto.
In recent years, and particularly during the pandemic, Scottish Government ministers have pushed to secure greater borrowing powers from Westminster, but all such requests have been rejected.
When asked if this could be a better way to fund the £600 million increase in NHS funding, Mr Ross said: “The Scottish Government have got borrowing powers, what we’re saying is when it comes to major borrowing, as we’ve seen during this pandemic, in dealing with the issues here in the United Kingdom, we benefit from the Treasury supporting jobs and businesses right across the country.”
When asked what he felt was the most important policy announced in the manifesto, Mr Ross pointed to the proposed increase in teacher numbers.
“We’ve seen teacher numbers cut since the SNP came to power and we’ve seen our education standards plummet down international rankings to becoming average across the world,” he said.
“We need to invest in education, that’s why we’re putting £550 million over the course of the next parliament into recruiting more teachers.”
The Tory leader also pledged to – “when public finances allow” – bring Scotland’s income tax system into line with the rest of the UK by increasing the threshold for the higher level from £43,663 to match the UK Government’s level of £50,270.
He said it would be in place, if his party is elected, by the end of the parliamentary term, and rejected the idea that it was a tax cut for the wealthy, while those on lower incomes would see no change.
“The SNP made Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom and we know that 1.1 million workers end up paying more tax in Scotland for doing the exact same job in other parts of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“That’s not your high earners, that your police officers, your teachers, our dedicated public servants who we don’t believe should be penalised for doing the same job here in Scotland as they would do elsewhere in the country.”
The Tory leader said it was not yet clear how much such a change to the tax system would cost the Scottish economy, given they did not know when the change would come into force, nor the economic climate in Scotland at the time.