NICOLA Sturgeon rubbished Douglas Ross’s “bold” claim that the NHS in Scotland is under threat from privatisation by the SNP.

Following a BBC report which said health service leaders in Scotland had discussed the potential creation of a “two-tier” system that would charge rich patients for treatment, the First Minister was probed over the issue in the Scottish Parliament.

During FMQs, the Scottish Tory leader raised the leaked minutes of a meeting between high-ranking officials, which said they had been given the “green light” by NHS Scotland chief executive Caroline Lamb to discuss reforming the health service.

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Ross asked: “Is she denying these conversations took place, is she denying that NHS chiefs discussed a two-tier system in Scotland’s NHS, or is she saying the minutes of this meeting are wrong?”

Sturgeon said it was “bold” for Ross to come to the Holyrood chamber and talk about privatisation of the NHS.

She added: “The Conservatives, who have done more than any other party in these islands, and sometimes they’ve had stiff competition from Labour, but have done more than any other party in these islands to privatise the National Health Service.

“I’m intrigued though at Douglas Ross’s line of questioning. I did an interview on Monday addressing the comments, the minute is there, I wasn’t denying then the conversation took place, I’m not denying it now.”

The FM criticised Ross for using the phrase “plans”, when they were “conversations”.

She added: “Let me let Douglas Ross into what shouldn’t be a secret but he clearly doesn’t understand it - NHS leaders, however much respect I have for them, and I have considerable respect for them, do not make government policy.

“The Government makes government policy and the founding principles of the National Health Service, that this government has done more than any to protect and to enhance, are not, and as long as I am First Minister, never will be up for discussion.”

Ross further claimed that private treatment in Scotland is up 84% since the start of the pandemic compared to the rest of the UK, and then tried to suggest that NHS chiefs were operating “without ministerial direction”.

He added: “If the First Minister is to be believed, they’re not listening to the Health Secretary but are going off to fix the NHS on their own with no government oversight. So is this yet another confirmation that Humza Yousaf is out of control with Scotland’s NHS?”

The FM hit back: “Even by Douglas Ross’s own standards, this is a pretty lame and pathetic line of questioning. He talks about a two-tier health service perhaps he’s talking about the one that already exists where the Conservatives are in government in England.

“There will not be a two-tier health service while this government is in office in Scotland.”

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Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also focused on the issue of privatisation in the NHS, claiming there is “already a two-tier health system in Scotland”.

He added: “Can the First Minister tell the chamber how many procedures were carried out in private hospitals in the past year?”

The First Minister replied: “As I’ve just said to Douglas Ross, the people who self-fund for private care in Scotland is lower than it is in England, significantly lower, and even more significantly lower than where Labour is in government in Wales. That is the reality because we protect our health service and we always will.”

Sarwar claimed there were 39,000 patients treated privately in Scotland last year, adding that the figure does not include those paying for private dentistry treatments.

The figures include thousands of hip and knee surgeries, costing an average of £12,500 per patient.

Sarwar said: “The number of people now paying for treatment without health insurance has increased by 72%.

“Often these are people who are forced to borrow money, turn to family and friends, or even remortgage their home to get healthcare that should be free at the point of need.

“Let’s look at the facts – almost 2000 people have gone for private treatment for endoscopies and colonoscopies – privately these treatments cost an average of £1995.

“Over 7800 have gone private for a cataract surgery – average cost £2660 – and a staggering 3500 people have had a hip or knee replacement in a private hospital – average cost £12,500.

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“These figures make clear that under the SNP, healthcare in Scotland is already a two-tier system.”

The FM said she does “not accept that there was a two-tier health system in Scotland”.

She also said Sarwar failed to take into consideration the cancellation of treatment because of the Covid pandemic.

Sturgeon added: “The one thing that was missing completely from Anas Sarwar’s question there, of course, was reference to a global pandemic that caused the cancellation and the pausing of elected services in our NHS for a considerable period of time.

“That’s why we’ve seen an increase in those figures in recent years, but these figures remain significantly below the comparable figures in England and in Wales.”