IS the Scottish Ambulance Service in crisis? Last week, our sister title The Herald reported on the tragic death of Southsider Gerard Brown who had collapsed in his Dumbreck flat and died after a 40 hour wait for an ambulance.

Mr Brown’s GP had repeatedly warned 999 call handlers that his patient’s condition was critical, but to no avail. The GP has since described our current ambulance service as “third world medicine”.

Last week at First Minister’s Questions we also heard how an 86-year-old lady lay on her kitchen floor with a broken hip for eight hours while waiting for an ambulance. Another woman explained how she had to wait 23 hours for an ambulance for her husband. There are many more examples.

The Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) was the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament two weeks ago. The First Minister relied on 2020/21 statistics that revealed 99% of 999 ambulance calls were responded to within half an hour.

However, we are now in the tail end of September and there is evidence to suggest the average waiting time has risen dramatically to six hours. We also know that pressures will continue to rise on the NHS this winter with seasonal outbreaks of flu and respiratory conditions.

How have we ended up here? Certainly, the pressures of Covid-19 have been unprecedented over the last 18 months. Yet there’s just over 1,000 people in Scottish hospitals with Covid-19 at present - half the number we had back in January. It would appear strains within our ambulance service have been around for some time.

In 2018, a government report found that only 20 per cent of ambulance crew members thought there were enough staff. A pre-Covid staff survey in 2019 showed demand for ambulance services had increased beyond available resources; while almost half of paramedics said they often thought about leaving the service.

The First Minister has told MSPs her government is investing an extra £20m in the SAS over last year and this year. It plans to recruit an additional 300 ambulance staff. Is this enough though? And remember, recruiting and training qualified staff takes a long lead in time.

The SAS has 5,100 members of staff – as well as 1,200 volunteers. An extra 300 staff members is significant, representing a 6% increase in the workforce, but the government’s own press release confirmed that new staff won’t be in post for some time yet.

The Scottish Government said: “An extra 69 frontline staff – a mixture of paramedics, newly qualified paramedics and technicians – along with nine patient transport service staff, will be located across the north region by April 2022. The rest of the 296 additional staff are made up of 139 in the west region and 88 in the east region, all of whom are frontline staff”.

In relation to the 227 new staff for the west and east regions of Scotland, I couldn’t find any timeframe for these workers to be in place. Which no doubt explains why the First Minister has now asked for the Ministry of Defence to deploy soldiers to help with the SAS. Military personnel have been doing this in England since August. I appreciate the Scottish Government places great reliance on its forthcoming NHS investment but a five year plan won’t help anyone today: “Our recent recovery plan targeted over £1 billion of investment over the next five years across the whole health system to increase capacity and ensure the health service is ready for the challenges ahead”.

It’s also fair to say that simply announcing future money doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. The president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Professor Michael Griffin, has explained that the problems facing the SAS and NHS Scotland are complex and deep rooted.

They include staff absence from illnesses and isolation. There appears to be bed blocking as it’s taking longer to discharge patients from hospitals into local authority managed social care. Our social care system has been largely missing in action for many people during the pandemic.

According to the trade union, Unite, many ambulances are unable to respond to 999 calls because they are backed up at a hospital waiting for a patient handover. Clearly, there are now various bottle necks within our health and social care systems that have created a “vicious circle” to quote Professor Griffin.

We need strategic leaders and senior management teams across the SAS, NHS Scotland and local government to work together to unravel systemic problems. The Scottish Government should lead and co-ordinate this. We have a deep and growing crisis. We must acknowledge that and act with a much greater sense of urgency.