SNP Health Secretary under fire for urging Scots to ‘think twice’ before calling 999

·3-min read
Humza Yousaf recognised that people call 999 only when they are in ‘extreme distress’ - Jeff J Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images
Humza Yousaf recognised that people call 999 only when they are in ‘extreme distress’ - Jeff J Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images

The SNP’s Health Secretary has been accused of “reckless messaging” that could cost lives after he urged Scots to think twice before dialling 999 for an ambulance.

Humza Yousaf said people should consider whether it was “absolutely critical” for them to dial for an ambulance, with the service in crisis and union leaders warning people faced a six-hour wait between calling and being admitted to hospital.

He recognised that people called 999 only when they were in “extreme distress”, but warned that the NHS was facing an “extraordinarily difficult winter”.

However, Holyrood’s opposition parties accused Mr Yousaf of “making people feel guilty about calling 999” and argued both he and Jeane Freeman, his predecessor, were responsible for failing to deal earlier with the “unfolding” crisis.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane, the Scottish Tories’ shadow public health minister, said: “This sort of reckless messaging could put lives at risk. When people suffer conditions like heart attacks or strokes, they might think twice about calling an ambulance, which could lead to unnecessary deaths.”

The Unite union disclosed last week that sick Scots who call 999 for an ambulance face an average six-hour wait until they are admitted to hospital thanks to a shortage of A&E beds.

This had led to ambulances carrying sick patients being stacked up outside A&E departments for up to seven hours, waiting for a bed to become free. During this time, they were each unable to respond to three emergency calls.

The Red Cross was last week drafted into Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Scotland’s largest hospital, to provide emergency aid as ambulances queued up in car parks for hours.

Unite, which represents Scottish ambulance staff, said at the weekend the British Army should be drafted in and “pop-up wards” erected at A&E departments.

More than a quarter of people attending A&E are having to wait more than the target four hours to be admitted, transferred or treated – a record level.

Mr Yousaf said the number of people attending A&E is 40 per cent higher than the last time there were more than 1,000 patients in hospital with Covid.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “I can’t get away from the fact that we are in an extremely challenging winter and that is why we’re investing as much as we possibly can.”

He said an extra £20 million was being spent recruiting more ambulance staff but, asked directly if people should “think twice” before calling for an ambulance, Mr Yousaf said: “Yes is the short answer to that.”

Making people ‘feel guilty’ about dialling 999

He added: “I don’t doubt that people do that because they are in distressing situations. I think most people only call when they are in that extreme distress.”

However, he said they should consider if an ambulance is “absolutely critical” before dialling 999. If they conclude that it is, he said they should “of course, make that call and the ambulance service will get to you as quickly as they possibly can”.

Dr Gulhane said: “It is astonishing to hear the SNP’s Health Secretary try to discourage people from calling for an ambulance. Humza Yousaf is making people feel guilty about dialling 999 and seeking urgent help.

“The Health Secretary should be guaranteeing that he will improve waiting times, not telling people to stop phoning for an ambulance.”

Jackie Baillie, the Scottish Labour health spokesman, said: “This crisis has been unfolding for some time, unaddressed by previous SNP health secretaries, and the current one is now missing in action.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “Humza Yousaf is proving a reckless Health Secretary. Encouraging people not to seek treatment is a huge gamble.”

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