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Nicola Sturgeon is finalising plans for the British Army to prop up Scotland’s crisis-hit ambulance service as extraordinary delays led to the sick and dying waiting hours in agony for help.
She initially told MSPs she was “considering” asking for “targeted military assistance” to alleviate pressure on the service after being challenged over the case of a pensioner who died when it took 40 hours for an ambulance to arrive.
By the end of a bruising session of First Minister’s Questions, she said she would immediately return to her office “to finalise the details of the request for military assistance so that that can be submitted as soon as possible”.
With Humza Yousaf, her beleaguered Health Secretary, watching on, she argued that the same problems were being experienced across “much of the world” and it was “the most challenging set of circumstances that our health service has faced”.
The Telegraph understands she has asked for more than 100 servicemen to run Scotland’s mobile testing sites, freeing up ambulance service workers who currently perform this task.
Whitehall insiders said a request under the Military Aid to Civil Authorities protocol had been received, but the details were still being ironed out. However, Ms Sturgeon could provide no timetable for assistance to arrive.
Holyrood’s opposition parties questioned why it had taken so long for her to ask for the British Army’s assistance, a week after union leaders disclosed the average wait from calling an ambulance to being admitted to hospital was six hours.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, raised the case of Gerard Brown, a 65-year-old, whose body was still warm when paramedics eventually turned up, 40 hours after an ambulance had been called.
Dr Partick O’Neill, his GP, told The Herald newspaper that he had repeatedly contacted the Scottish Ambulance Service to warn them his patient’s life was at risk and that Scots were being offered a “third world” service.
Ms Sturgeon was also pressed over the case of Lilian Briggs, an 86-year-old great-grandmother, who was forced to lay on the floor for eight hours waiting for an ambulance after falling and suffering a double fracture to her hip.
A BBC radio phone-in was earlier bombarded with calls from people who had endured lengthy waits for help, including one case of a man with failing kidneys who had to wait more than 23 hours for an ambulance.
The shocking disclosures came the day after Mr Yousaf appealed to Scots to think twice before dialling 999 for an ambulance.
NHS backlog in numbers
A shortage of accident and emergency beds had led to ambulances carrying sick patients being stacked up outside hospitals for hours, waiting for a bed to become free. During this time, they are unable to respond to other emergency calls.
Ms Sturgeon apologised “unreservedly” to those waiting too long and said extra funding was being provided to recruit more staff, although she did not say how long this would take.
“A number of additional actions are currently under active consideration... but I can confirm now that this includes consideration of seeking targeted military assistance to help deal with short-term pressure points,” she said.
“Such military assistance is already being provided to ambulance services in England, and of course we have had military assistance for other aspects of the pandemic over the past 18 months.”
More support for rural ambulance stations
Ms Sturgeon said other options included providing more support for rural ambulance stations, making “alternative transport arrangements” for lower-risk patients and deploying more liaison officers to transfer people from ambulances into hospitals.
Temporary admission wards could also be set up “to ease the bottleneck” that has seen queues of ambulances waiting outside accident and emergency departments for a bed to become free.
However, as she continued to be bombarded by questions over the crisis, she pivoted away from military assistance being merely an option to something that was being finalised.
“It is important that we make that request in detail so that we know exactly what we are requesting from the military. That request is currently being prepared,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon poured cold water on calls for the Army to set up “pop-up wards” to alleviate pressure, saying they “may not provide the best conditions” during a cold winter.
She also defended Mr Yousaf over his call for people to think twice before dialling 999, arguing that what he actually meant was that people “should never hesitate to call one, if that is the intervention that they think is required”.
But Mr Ross said: “These heartbreaking stories of people dying and suffering in agony while waiting for an ambulance must be a wake-up call to the SNP Government.
“Systemic failures are leaving ambulance crews to turn up and pronounce people dead, instead of having a chance of saving a life. For two weeks in a row, Nicola Sturgeon has been in denial that our NHS is in crisis. Admitting the scale of the problem is essential to tackling it.”
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said lengthy waits for ambulances predated the pandemic and argued “this is an avoidable human tragedy on a heart-breaking scale”.
He added: “The First Minister likes to remind us that the buck stops with her. It does. How many hours will the people of Scotland have to wait for the First Minister to fix this?”
Army intervention ‘too little, too late’
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: “Calling in the Army is evidence of a government that has done too little, too late.”
Scotland’s prosecution service and public service ombudsman are investigating the case of Mr Brown, a father-of-three and cancer survivor, who was found by his son’s partner on the floor of his Glasgow flat on Monday with injuries following a fall.
He was unable to get up to unlock his door, with his building’s concierge eventually gaining access and calling an ambulance at 11am. It did not arrive until 3am on Wednesday, by which time he had passed away.
Mr Brown’s son Dylan said: “They pronounced that he was only just dead because he still had warmth in his body. In this day and age, it should not be happening. I know with Covid people are busy and the NHS is struggling, but that’s unacceptable and we just don’t want it happening to another family.
“The worst thing about it is that Dr O’Neill said to me ‘Dylan, I can assure you that if they’d got to him your dad would still be here’. That’s the hardest part to accept.”
The Ministry of Defence said it had received a request from the Scottish Government under the MACA protocol. A spokesman said: “We are working hard to identify where we can most effectively assist other government departments and civil authorities.”