The NHS in Scotland is enduring a “perpetual winter”, the British Medical Association (BMA) has said, amid high states of alert for some health boards.
Lewis Morrison, chair of the BMA in Scotland, issued the warning after it emerged earlier this week that three hospitals under the NHS Lanarkshire board had run out of space.
The board said on Wednesday it was “beyond critical occupancy levels across its three acute hospitals” – University hospitals Hairmyres, Monklands and Wishaw – because of “relentless pressures, bed shortages and staff shortages due to annual leave, sickness absence and self-isolation”.
Mr Morrison said he has “never known a prolonged period of pressure like this at any point in my career”, and said while last winter was considered to be the most challenging faced by the NHS, this year may be worse.
He said: “The news this week that NHS Lanarkshire is back at its highest state of alert and its hospitals are basically at or beyond capacity is just another indication of the perpetual winter that Scotland’s NHS is enduring.
“I’ve said before that I have never known a prolonged period of pressure like this at any point in my career. High alert warnings like this used to be reserved for the most difficult points in winter months, when we were in the midst of flu season – but now they are year-round events.”
Mr Morrison warned the pressures are not confined to NHS Lanarkshire or to hospitals, but are present across Scotland with impacts on GP surgeries and community care.
He said there is “no simple answer” as to how the situation has arisen, but there is “no doubt this has been many years in the making”.
He added: “The truth is that years of underinvestment and failure to properly plan for the staff we need, or value the staff we have, are absolutely coming home to roost.
“The result is a system that just doesn’t work properly any more – staffed by people on their knees and genuinely at the brink of what they can cope with.
“Last winter was supposed to be the most challenging our NHS has ever faced – yet we already fear that this winter may be worse.”
Mr Morrison said there are no “quick fixes”, but NHS staff must be focused on and given support.
A failure to do so could result in the loss of many staff “who simply can’t take the daily punishment of doing the job anymore”.
He added: “Some honesty from our politicians on the scale of the challenge will help with this – and then finally we may start to address the need to make sure our NHS is sustainable for the future, with the well-supported and planned staffing cohort it so clearly needs to meet demand.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise the significant additional pressure staff are facing both within NHS Lanarkshire, and indeed across our health and care services, at this time.
“We will continue to do all we can to seek to alleviate those demand pressures and provide support for their wellbeing.
“Our NHS Recovery Plan is backed by more than £1 billion and we are committed to increasing the NHS workforce even further.”
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