Health secretary warns of ‘significant challenges’ for NHS this winter

Michael Matheson insisted preparation for the winter months had started earlier than ever before.

Health secretary Michael Matheson warns of ‘significant challenges’ for Scottish NHS this winter PA Media

Scotland’s NHS is facing “very significant challenges” this winter, health secretary Michael Matheson has warned MSPs.

While he said the Scottish Government was still working to tackle treatment backlogs that have built up since the Covid-19 pandemic, Matheson added there were “real difficulties” in recruiting some of the staff needed.

In the wake of last year’s “very challenging” winter, he said the Scottish Government had started its preparations earlier than in previous years.

Matheson told MSPs on Holyrood’s Health Committee: “It will be a challenging time, I’m not going to shy away from that, and I’m not going to kid on that it won’t be difficult.”

His comments came after John-Paul Loughrey, the Scottish vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the committee that last winter had been the “worst for a generation, and the worst probably in the history of the NHS” for those working in emergency care.

Loughrey, a consultant in emergency medicine at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, added that his professional colleagues were “unanimous that this is no longer a winter problem, this is an NHS in crisis problem”.

Asked by Tory MSP Tess White if Scots could “expect the worst winter for the NHS this year” Mr Matheson said preparations were being put in place to help mitigate against problems.

But he told the committee: “Our NHS though this winter will experience very significant challenges.”

Health secretary Michael Matheson said planning for this winter had started earlier than before, with the Government working with NHS boards and others.PA Media

In a bid to tackle this, Matheson said services that try to keep patients out of hospital were being expanded. He cited the hospital at home service, which works to reduce admissions amongst the elderly by treating them at home, and the “see and treat” programme where ambulance crews treat patients on the scene so they do not need to take them to hospital, as examples of this.

Matheson stressed that the Scottish Government was “working closely” with NHS boards across the country on winter preparations, particularly for accident and emergency departments, which he said “often feel the brunt of these challenges”.

He added that planning for the winter months had started “earlier than ever before” – telling the committee that work on this was one of the first things he had commissioned when he took over as Health Secretary at the end of March.

This work is also being done on a “joint basis in a way we have never done before”, Mr Matheson told the MSPs.

He said: “We had a winter summit a few weeks ago that brought all of the key stakeholders from across the country from health and social care together, to look at trying to plan and manage some of these challenges that we will face in the course of the winter.”

The health secretary told how the NHS was currently “taking forward a programme of work in order to tackle the backlog in waiting lists”, with Matheson adding that “very significant positive progress has been made” with this.

However, he said the NHS was also facing recruitment difficulties, although he insisted these were not unique to Scotland.

Matheson said there “challenges around recruitment of staff” but added that “the health system across the whole of the UK is experiencing real difficulties, particularly in some of the specialities”.

He continued: “Some of the specialities aren’t actually just difficulties for the UK, they are global challenges because of a lack of specialists in those areas.”

Despite this he told the MSPs: “We’re doing what we can to plan for the winter, for the challenges which will inevitably lie ahead.

“We’re also trying to put in place programmes of work which deal with the large number of people continuing to wait extended periods for treatment to try to address these issues, while at the same time also dealing with the recruitment challenges we are experiencing not just here in Scotland but the whole of the UK particularly in certain specialities.”

Stating that the winter months will “be a challenging time” for the NHS, he stressed: “We have brought forward our planning and done it on a joint basis in a way that we have never done before, to try to help to mitigate some of the challenges we face.”

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