Humza Yousaf last night said he’d “be angry too” if he had to wait as long for 999 paramedics as some of the victims of Scotland’s ambulance crisis.
The move came as the Health Secretary prepares to draft in firefighters to drive ambulances as part of a new multi-million pound package to tackle the health emergency.
Yousaf will today announce the measures to tackle the chronic ambulance delays after a Daily Record campaign to highlight growing waiting times.
He said: “We have made a call to arms across the public sector to assist and we are pleased the Fire and Rescue service has agreed to help and provide additional resources.
“These are things we wouldn’t normally ask in peacetime but they need to be done given the nature of the crisis.”
The number of fire service personnel is yet to be agreed but they come on top of the deployment of soldiers as emergency drivers, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week.
Yousaf said calls to draft in the Navy and RAF staff to help ease the crisis were also under consideration.
Speaking to the Record, he revealed he will today announce an additional £20million in funding available immediately to the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS).
He said: “The SAS can draw on this funding immediately and whenever it is required over the winter period.
“It will be up to the ambulance service when to spend it but given the urgency of what we are dealing with we expect them to spend it as quickly as they possibly can.”
The new £20million is in addition to the £20million announced by Sturgeon last week, which has been ploughed into the SAS for the recruitment of 591 staff – 296 new and the rest covering natural wastage.
Yousaf said more than 100 second year paramedic students will also be recruited and trained as 999 call handlers to help dispatch ambulances. Over the summer, the service has been dealing with 10,000 more calls a month than at this time last year.
Yousaf said: “The paramedic students will help get ambulances dispatched quicker so we don’t have people waiting too long at the end of a phone line.”
Waiting times from calls for ambulances to delivery at hospitals have gone from about an hour to six hours on average.
This “system overload” means an ambulance misses three 999 calls while located at a hospital waiting for patient discharges.
A lack of capacity at Accident and Emergency in hospitals is creating bottlenecks, with ambulances forced to queue outside emergency departments for several hours while space is found for patients.
The delays have been blamed on Covid restrictions inside stretched A&E departments.
Yousaf said: “The ambulance service is effectively the canary in the mine. When the ambulance service is really struggling, we know there is pressure across the entire system.”
He said to help tackle this he will increase from 11 to 20 the number of Hospital Ambulance Liaison Officers responsible for a timely ambulance turnaround and smooth patient flows at the busiest sites.
Paramedics union Unite have called for temporary field hospitals to be set up in major cities but, while Yousaf didn’t dismiss the possibility, he said there was not the staff to man them.
Yousaf said: “We won’t rule out the option and we are urgently exploring it but the difficulty is, while we could get the beds, the challenge is getting the workforce given they are already working intensely round the clock in hospitals. There is not a pool of army doctors ready to be called in because they are already deployed within the NHS.”
Instead, hospitals are being urged to find space to establish temporary emergency receiving wards. Yousaf said: “There are spaces of capacity we can create in hospitals where we can have temporary admission wards.
“The patient can then be taken from the ambulance, allowing the crew to get out to treat other people.”
He added that he’d also been in talks with local authorities to find care packages for the 1500 delayed discharge patients, who are clinically fit to be released but have nowhere to go.
Charities such as the Red Cross have been asked to transport patients who are not severely ill.
Yousaf said the measures should see an improvement but it would take time.
He added: “We are still going to face an incredibly challenging winter, we know the flu season is still to hit.
“I am not going to pretend these measures are a silver bullet but I am expecting when it comes to the response times for the most severely ill and the top level of ambulance call out to be reduced.”
Don’t miss the latest news from around Scotland and beyond – Sign up to our daily newsletter here.