Scotland’s health secretary Humza Yousaf has acknowledged that the country is in for an “incredibly, incredibly difficult winter”.
It comes amid concerns over staffing levels at hospitals, with high demand placed on frontline workers.
Earlier this week, Unison wrote to the chief executive of NHS Lanarkshire warning that staff have been left feeling “drained” and “burnt out”, whilst working beyond contracted hours and doing overtime to keep services afloat.
Yousaf gave evidence to MSPs at the Scottish Parliament’s Covid-19 Recovery Committee on Thursday.
It follows the health secretary on Tuesday setting out a £300m plan to help the health and care sector through the winter months.
Raising the concerns highlighted by unions, Scottish Labour MSP Alex Rowley indicated that the pressure on health staff is “immense”.
He told Yousaf: “In the last few weeks, I’ve met with frontline staff in the NHS, I’ve also met with trade union representatives for the frontline.
“Now, the announcement you made yesterday, whilst welcome, they would argue does not go far enough, should have been earlier, but more importantly, does not go far enough in terms of the resources needed.
“They also, some of the feedback that I’ve had, is that the pressure is immense.
“There are times when they say, their words, ‘the hospitals are not safe’, that the nurse-patient ratio is way beyond what is acceptable.
“So, do you have a grasp of the extent of the problems that we actually have in our hospitals and do you accept what these nurses and trade unions are saying that there are questions here about the level of safety?
“And whether the numbers of nurses are so low, compared to the number of patients, that there are serious safety issues within our hospitals?”
Yousaf said that the Government will continue to engage regularly with unions on the issues they raise.
He responded: “First thing to say is that when any of our trade unions speak up and speak out, they’ll be listened (to) by this government.
“I spoke to the trade unions last week in relation to my statement, I spoke to them before I made my statement also in around additional funding for the ambulance services.
“So, I speak to trade unions quite regularly and you talked about nursing, I spoke to the RCN (on) Friday I think just passed, so we’ll speak regularly, engage regularly with trade unions and take very seriously what they say.”
He continued: “Yes, would be the answer to your question. I, and we the government, have a grasp of just how serious the situation is across our NHS and social care.
“I think it’s really important not just to talk about the pressure in hospitals, there is significant pressure in our hospitals, but also across social care as well.
“It’s why the funding announcement that I made, which is the biggest winter pressure package ever announced in the history of devolution.
“And so it should be thus because the significance of the pressure I would argue in this winter is more than any other winter we’ve faced, not just in devolution, but probably in the NHS’ 73-year existence.
“So, this will go a long way, I would hope, in making an impact, not just again in terms of the acute side, but in primary care, but also in social care and the community as well.”
The health secretary outlined the concerns of clinicians over an increase in flu and other respiratory diseases, with a much lower circulation of those last year as people stayed at home.
He told MSPs: “Any concerns around patient safety, I would hope, would be flagged up to the Government, to the health board of course initially, but to the Government as well.
“We have the highest record level of staffing in the NHS ever under any government, by this government.
“We’ll continue to recruit, of course my statement made significant ambitions around recruitment, not just for nurses, but also band twos to fours as well.
“But, I have to be up front with the member (Rowley) and with the public, these measures will help to mitigate some of the challenges, but we’re still in for an incredibly, incredibly difficult winter.
“Clinicians tell me that their real concern is not just the Covid pressures, but we hope to make a significant dent into those as we’re controlling transmission, but the flu and other respiratory viruses.
“Because our immunity we suspect is quite low because of last year of course flu wasn’t circulating as much due to the lockdown and restrictive measures that we were under.
“The concern is that the immunity of people is low.”
He added: “Every single penny we’re getting, whether it’s through additional consequentials on health and social care, I can promise (Rowley) and the trade unions and the public most importantly that we’ll spend those on health and social care.”