Humza Yousaf has insisted Scotland’s health secretary would have been unable to prevent skyrocketing waiting times as the NHS emerged from the Covid pandemic – regardless of who was in charge.
Announcing his candidacy to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister, Yousaf also admitted he “was not wedded” to the idea of using the next general election as a “de-facto” referendum on Scottish independence.
Finance secretary Kate Forbes and the former community safety minister Ash Regan have both declared they will stand in the race for the top job in Holyrood after Sturgeon revealed her intention to stand down last week.
The health secretary, who has presided over the worst Scottish A&E waiting times on record, said issues facing the NHS were “exactly the same” as those elsewhere in the UK.
He added that Scotland’s NHS continued to outperform the other UK countries, while the service had thus far managed to avoid strike action.
“It doesn’t matter who would have been in charge of the health service at this particular time in the midst of a global pandemic, they would have faced the exact same challenges, that’s why you see them in England and Wales and Northern Ireland,” he told STV News.
“But let’s look at the way that we have done things differently in the way we have responded to Covid. We have one of the most successful vaccine booster campaigns and programmes in the world at one point, we are the only nation in the UK to have avoided strikes and industrial action by nurses and ambulance drivers; not by accident, but because of my relationships that I have managed to build up with our trade unions.
“And we still continue to have the best performing A&E right across the UK.”
He added: “Our opponents will always attack, that’s what they do. But if you look at what I’ve done for the health service, if you speak to trade unions and those who represent the workers who have given their all in the pandemic, they will tell you that the relationship is good, they will tell you that we find compromises, that we meaningfully engage.”
Yousaf said he wanted to work with members of his party to determine the best approach to securing independence.
He said Scotland had “never been closer” to leaving the UK, though conceded a de-facto vote was not his preferred method.
The outgoing FM previously said the next general election – due to be held before January 2025 – would serve as a vote on Scottish independence if the electorate returned a majority for a pro-Yes party.
Yousaf called for “proper debate and discussion” on the process. but added he would refuse to “impose” his preferred method.
“I’m looking to engage with [SNP members]. I’m not going to tell them this is the method I want that you have to accept,” he said.
“Let’s have a proper discussion, let’s have a proper debate. Let’s bring the party membership together. Let’s do put all ideas on the table that are within a legal framework.”