It will take years, not months, for the NHS to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the health secretary has said.
Humza Yousaf said he has been buoyed by recent A&E waiting time improvements after months of deterioration and record numbers of patients waiting longer than the four-hour target.
Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Yousaf said the situation is on the “right trajectory” after three weeks of slightly improving A&E waiting times.
The latest weekly figures show more than three-quarters of patients (75.2%) were admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours of arriving at A&E – the highest proportion for two months.
But it follows weeks of record-low performances, with almost a third (30.4%) of patients having to wait longer than four hours during one week in October.
Yousaf said: “We actually have seen improvements in A&E performance over the last few weeks.
“Nowhere near where I want to see them of course, but certainly moving in the right trajectory.”
Looking at other parts of the health service, he continued: “In terms of elective care, what I would say to people is we’re already trying to work through that backlog as best we possibly can.
“Where there’s any theatre space, where there’s any staff that are available, we are doing what we can in terms of elective.
“But many health boards have had to make a really difficult decision to prioritise urgent care.”
Asked when services are expected to return to more normal, pre-pandemic levels for patients and healthcare staff, Mr Yousaf added: “I would love to say to people, ‘look at the effects of the pandemic, which has been the biggest shock the NHS has ever suffered in its 73-year history, is somehow going to be over in a matter of weeks, or even months’.
“But we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, so it’s not possible for me to say that.
“It will take a number of years, undoubtedly, to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic but we’ll certainly leave no stone unturned to do everything we can to improve the situation.”
The health secretary also downplayed concerns about a backlog for people getting Covid-19 vaccine boosters, with daily vaccination rates currently at about 30,000 compared to 45,000 per day 24 weeks ago – the recommended interval between second jabs and the booster dose.
Expressing hope that the number of vaccinators will increase during December, Mr Yousaf said: “There is of course always the danger that you’re not going through that backlog at the pace that we would want to, but we are making good pace.”
Responding to the interview, Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “No-one underestimates the scale of the challenge before our NHS but the SNP must be prepared to shoulder some of the blame for the situation we are in.
“Our NHS was underfunded and under-resourced before the pandemic and the Health Secretary’s so-called NHS recovery plan is nothing more than a sticking plaster with old, reheated promises.
“We can avoid years of further hardship in the NHS and the damage that it would cause, but only if we have the political will to do so.
“We need the health secretary to stop looking for excuses and to start looking for solutions.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The Health Secretary should admit that he had previously underestimated the scale of the challenge and that the present NHS recovery plan is not up to scratch.
“Staff are at their wits’ end coping not just with the pandemic but with the consequences of 14 years of SNP failure.
“What is even more astonishing is that despite admitting the recovery will take years the SNP are still promising to focus on another independence referendum as soon as next year. That’s starting to look like gross neglect.
“The health secretary and his Cabinet colleagues should focus on ensuring the NHS has the support and resources it needs to get through the years to come.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats will continue to press the Government to deliver new hope for our health staff, starting with a burnout prevention strategy for staff this winter.”