Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has urged Scots to think twice before calling 999 for ambulance, as he warned the NHS is facing an “extraordinarily difficult winter”.
While he pledged any additional cash that could be found would be spent trying to ease the pressure on the health service, the Health Secretary conceded it “will be a challenging autumn and winter”.
In light of that, he said people should consider whether it is “absolutely critical” for them to call for an ambulance.
The recent surge in coronavirus cases has resulted in rising numbers of patients in hospital with the virus – with the total now more than 1,000 again.
This in turn is putting pressure on other parts of the health service.
It emerged last week that the average wait for an ambulance had reached six hours, while the number of patients who spend more than the target time four hours in accident and emergency has hit record highs.
Mr Yousaf told BBC Radio Scotland: “We are in for an extraordinarily difficult winter.
“We know that the flu season could be extremely challenging, we know that people that are presenting – whether it is presenting to the ambulance service or GPs or A&E – they are presenting more sick because they haven’t presented for the last 18 months.
“Looking at the data the last time we had 1,000 patients in hospital with Covid was December 2020, our A&E presentations now, when we have the same number of Covid patients, is 40% higher.”
The Health Secretary told the Good Morning Scotland programme: “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.”
And he pledged: “Whatever money I can find, additional resources I can find to help the NHS, I can promise you that will all be spent to tackle what will be a challenging autumn and winter.”
The Scottish Government has already outlined a £1 billion NHS recovery plan, to help the service in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Yousaf also stressed the ambulance service was being given an “extra £20 million injection” to help boost staff numbers
“We are beginning to see more and more ambulance staff recruited,” he said.
“That recruitment is happening now, so we are helping to staff up the ambulance service.”
When asked directly if people should “think twice” before calling for ambulance, Mr Yousaf said: “Yes is the short answer to that.”
He stated: “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.”
Mr Yousaf said people who were “picking up the phone to call 999 to call an ambulance” should consider if this is “absolutely critical” – although he stressed if it was they should “of course make that call and the ambulance service will get to you as quickly as they possibly can”.
Opposition MSPs said the “reckless” comments from the Health Secretary could put lives at risk.
Conservative public health spokesman Dr Sandesh 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.
“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 Tory MSP added: “The Health Secretary should be guaranteeing that he will improve waiting times, not telling people to stop phoning for an ambulance.
“On Humza Yousaf’s watch, our ambulance service has reached breaking point and our NHS is in crisis.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Humza Yousaf is proving a reckless Health Secretary. Encouraging people not to seek treatment is a huge gamble.
“Winter pressures come around every year. It is the job of Health Secretary to ensure that the NHS has the resources it needs to cope with demand.”
Meanwhile, Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie hit out, saying: “Ambulance services are in crisis due to the SNP’s failure to support frontline workers and paramedics.
“Humza Yousaf should focus on fixing the problem rather than shaming Scots who are fearing for their health.”
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