UNION leaders have called for a national debate on the future of the NHS involving the public, instead of opposition politicians “playing the blame game” and “trash-talking” the health service.

The chair of BMA Scotland said commissioning a “national conversation” will be the “only topic on the table” at a meeting with Health Secretary Humza Yousaf due to take place this week.

He said there was a need for “depoliticised” debate about the NHS and rejected repeated calls from opposition politicians for Yousaf to be sacked, saying it would not provide any solutions to the crisis.

The largest health union, Unison, has also backed the idea of a national debate, accusing opposition politicians of “trash-talking” the NHS while failing to come up with solutions.

The call comes as health and social care services across the UK continue to struggle to cope with demand, with much of the focus placed upon A&E departments.

On Friday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee to address unprecedented pressure on the NHS, with plans to “reduce unnecessary attendances at A&E”.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held a rare weekend meeting at Downing Street for emergency talks with health leaders over the crisis in the NHS.

Dr Iain Kennedy, chair of BMA Scotland, said the current situation was due to a failure to prepare for an increasing number of older people in the population and plan for the workforce, with Covid a “smokescreen” for the current crisis.

He said there were a number of measures which could be taken, including assessing areas with most vacancies, addressing pay and pension issues and improving working conditions.

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But he told the Sunday National: “I’m meeting Humza Yousaf next week and as far as I’m concerned, the only topic on the table is the national conversation on the NHS in Scotland.

“I would like to see Humza Yousaf take the next step and seize a seismic opportunity to make fundamental and transformational change for the NHS in Scotland.

“If the Scottish Government doesn’t seize the opportunity now then the demise of the NHS in Scotland is going to continue.”

He added: “We know conversations have already been going on behind closed doors in the NHS, with chief executives apparently discussing a two-tier service, which the BMA in Scotland does not support.

“But we are pleased these conversations are happening and we would just like patients, public and stakeholders to be involved in that conversation.

“What I would be recommending is that we start with a blank sheet of paper with nothing off the table so that everyone in Scotland can have their say and come up with ideas about how we make the NHS sustainable.”

Kennedy said it had to be a “depoliticised” national conversation and the fact the NHS is struggling across the UK showed the “provision of world-class healthcare is not simply down to which political party is in power”.

“I have a lot of admiration for Humza Yousaf, and I personally believe that he could be the person if he acts now to take the opportunity for seismic change,” he added.

“He could be the person that commissions the national conversation and I certainly do not think that sacking the cabinet secretary is going to provide any solutions because the next person would simply be left holding on to the same problem.”

Matt McLaughlin, head of health at Unison Scotland, said problems in the NHS were a result of “abject policy failures” going back to the first Scottish executive and continuing under every Scottish Government since.

He said the modelling used to plan acute services had been based on “flawed” assumptions around the average length of a hospital stay for patients and the extent of the role that social care could play.

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He added: “I have every sympathy with the Scottish Government in this issue, in the context that they have to manage the service that they have.

“Part of the problem is of their making and they have got to be honest about that, but quite frankly politicians playing the blame game and trash-talking each other is exactly what got us into the mess we got into.”

On whether Yousaf should resign, McLaughlin said: “Humza Yousaf is no worse a health secretary than the last three health secretaries we have had, all of which Labour have called for to go.

“What we need is a steady hand at the tiller and someone who will work with all of the interested parties, including the opposition political parties, to get a long-term solution.

“If that’s Humza Yousaf, that’s fine by me – if it’s somebody else, that’s equally fine by me.”

McLaughlin backed the idea of a national discussion on the NHS, saying that every time an opposition politician is critical of the NHS, they should also be offering a solution.

He added: “What we have got at the minute is politicians sticking their hand in the sand, or trash-talking each other, that isn’t working.

“Somebody with a degree of universal credibility needs to convene a convention or talking shop, we can get these people together and identify what the blueprint should look like and then set out to deliver it.

“At present what we have got is people trying to score political gain. The NHS is highly political but if people are trying to score political gain on the back of the NHS without offering real solutions, I think that is inappropriate.”

Colin Poolman, director of RCN Scotland, said there was a need for a sustainable workforce and fully funded planning for the future that “meets the needs of the population, not meets the needs of the budgets”.

He said he would not disagree with the aim of taking politics out of the debate around the health service.

“We can learn from the past to change the future – you can’t change the past,” he said.

“If we are going to have a sustainable workforce, we all need to work together and that means we need the nurses, the professions, ourselves as the trade unions, and civil servants and politicians to come together collectively to do what is right for nursing.

“Then if you do what’s right for nursing, you will be doing what is right for patients.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The First Minister chaired a meeting of the Scottish Government resilience committee on Friday to discuss ongoing pressure and we are in daily contact with health boards, as we continue to monitor the situation extremely closely and further resilience meetings will be held in the coming weeks as required.

“The Health Secretary speaks regularly with BMA, with a meeting scheduled for next week and we will consider their suggestion of a national conversation.”