NICOLA Sturgeon has said that Scotland’s hospitals are "almost completely full" as the NHS tries to cope with the “most difficult winter ever”.

The First Minister held a press conference in Edinburgh outlining the challenges facing the health service, noting that while progress was being made the impact of Covid continued to be felt.

She noted the “extraordinary levels of winter flu” and said cases of Strep A and other respiratory viruses had resulted in a significantly increased demand for services.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon says she has 'never' used private healthcare

Unison called for extra funding to recruit more staff and invest in social care, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the "workforce crisis" is causing patients and families to suffer. 

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour demanded the FM sack Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

The Scottish Government have already recruited additional staff for NHS24 in the run-up to Christmas, and Sturgeon confirmed that the support service will speed up in the roll out of upcoming initiatives, including a new app and range of self-help guidance for patients to direct them away from overstretched A&E departments.

A key part of the plan to alleviate pressures is to deal with the large number of patients whose discharge from hospital has been delayed. The FM announced further funding for local health and care partnerships to book up care home beds for patients to allow them to be given “interim care” while a care package is being put in place.

The National asked the First Minister how many beds the Scottish Government would need to make an impact on the current crisis and if the capacity is there.

She responded: “We want to book as many as we can. Obviously, many of those care home beds will be in use but we know there is spare capacity there, so we’ll be working with health and care partnerships to maximise that over the immediate period.”

Despite the measures being taken, and more details to be announced by Yousaf in Holyrood on Tuesday, Sturgeon said that “hospitals right now are currently almost completely full”.

The National: The Health Secretary will give a statement in Holyrood on Tuesday setting out further detailsThe Health Secretary will give a statement in Holyrood on Tuesday setting out further details (Image: PA)

While around 96% of people still leave hospital when they should there are 1700 people currently admitted who didn’t need to be there, the FM said. This led to hospital bed occupancy reaching over 95%.

The FM added that at the same stage in 2020, pre-pandemic, bed occupancy was around 87%.

She also confirmed that primary care capacity is being maximised, adding that the government will support health boards in how they tackle this, using NHS Lanarkshire's opening of GP practices on Saturday as an example.

The First Minister said: “While NHS staff continue to deliver excellent care, truly excellent care, for thousands of patients each and every day, in some key areas, the system is not currently providing patients with the speed of treatment that we want to see.”

Wilma Brown, chair of Unison Scotland’s health committee, said that the union had been warning of a crisis in the NHS “long before Covid hit”.

The NHS nurse said that staff have repeatedly raised the lack of “meaningful workforce planning” and lack of investment in social care “meant we all saw this crisis coming”.

READ MORE: SNP challenge Labour to join forces to stop Tories anti-strike law

She added: “UNISON has been saying for months that we are heading for a serious winter crisis. We have had alerts and reports which were indicating the situation we now find ourselves in. When we can’t cope in the summer, it tells you there is absolutely no give in the system.

“NHS staff are being pushed to the absolute limit. The First Minister’s recognition that staff are working hard and delivering truly excellent care has never been in doubt - but it is simply not enough. Our patients and staff are not safe in these conditions and they deserve so much better.

“The Scottish Government should never put the country in this situation again, we need a meaningful long-term plan to bring the NHS back to full health which means recruiting more staff now, a significant reform to social care and investment in all health and care staff in Scotland."

Colin Poolman, RCN Scotland director, said that the Union's warnings hadn't been listened to.

He said: "Thousands of nursing posts are vacant, we’re not seeing the numbers we need applying to study nursing and many experienced staff are so worn down they are opting to leave the profession.

"The Scottish government and employers must do more to value and retain our existing experienced nursing workforce and to attract the workforce of the future - fair pay is a fundamental part of this."

Poolman argued there should be greater recognition of community nursing in reducing discharge times and the clinical need within care homes, adding that the government should work to make nursing an attractive career choice. 

He added: "In the longer term, there needs to be an open and honest discussion about the ongoing level of investment and new ways of working that will be required to meet the growing demands on Scotland’s health and care services.”

The National: Baillie demanded that the FM sack the Health SecretaryBaillie demanded that the FM sack the Health Secretary

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie accused the First Minister of spending “more time making excuses” than addressing the health concerns.

She said: “Faced with the most difficult winter in NHS history, the SNP are deflecting blame and rehashing the same old promises they have been making for years.

“These changes will barely scratch the surface of this deadly crisis and fail to grapple with the major structural problems clinicians are raising.

“Instead of quietly side-lining her own Health Secretary, Nicola Sturgeon needs to sack Humza Yousaf and appoint someone up to the job.

READ MORE: Scots Gender Recognition Certificate may be 'invalid' in rest of UK

“We can’t keep teetering on the brink of disaster – we need action now to support health and social care workers, drive down waiting lists, invest in social care, and tackle delayed discharge for good.”

LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton added: "Watching Nicola Sturgeon duck and dive to avoid taking an iota of responsibility, it is clear that she has learned very little from the past year. That's a grim omen for patients and staff.

"The fact that the First Minister felt she needed to lead this briefing, not her beleaguered Health Secretary, suggests that deep down she knows he is out of his depth. His statement to Parliament tomorrow is his last chance to win back the trust of patients and staff."

Dr Sandesh Gulhane, Tory shadow health secretary, accused the FM and Health Secretary of a "dereliction of duty" and being missing in action amid the escalating crisis.

He added: “It’s shameful, and very telling, that despite having grudgingly agreed to deliver a ministerial statement on the NHS crisis, the SNP have freed up just an hour of the parliamentary timetable for it.

"They also refused to drop their self-serving debate on independence, which will run for one hour and 40 minutes.

“Even at the height of arguably the worst crisis in our NHS’s history, the constitution still trumps everything for Nicola Sturgeon. It confirms again her shockingly skewed priorities.”