NICOLA Sturgeon has apologised to patients who have faced delays for treatment, but said Scotland’s NHS is coping despite “exceptional” pressures.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Shona Robison defended the Scottish Government’s flu vaccination programme after ministers were accused of failing to act on warnings.

Latest figures show the number of people with flu in Scotland has more than doubled compared to the same time last year, with about half of NHS boards reporting significant pressure on hospital wards as a result.

The First Minister told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “I would apologise unreservedly not just during the winter but at any time of the year to any patient who is not seen as quickly as we would want them to be seen in the NHS or who doesn’t get the treatment that they have a right to expect.

“We have seen exceptional pressures this winter largely due to the increase in flu cases, but also, particularly in the period immediately before Christmas; weather-related pressures.

“However, the hard work, the incredible hard work, the incredible teamwork, of the staff of the NHS – and I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of them – means that our NHS is coping in very, very difficult circumstances.”

Robison, speaking during a visit to Perth Royal Infirmary’s A&E department, said: “Any patient waiting longer than they should to be seen and treated within the NHS, I would apologise for that, but I think the public understands that we are in exceptional circumstances here and I have had lots of messages from the public saying staff, in the face of huge pressures and challenges, have done a tremendous job.”

Winter pressures are expected to be reflected again in A&E waiting-time figures, the Health Secretary added.

Statistics on the number of A&E patients seen within the target four-hour waiting time between Christmas and New Year are due be published today. Performance was well below the 95 per cent target in the weeks before Christmas and Robison said: “The A&E figures will remain very challenging indeed. People are working very, very hard to keep patients safe and, of course, people within A&E will be seen and treated and discharged as quickly as possible.”

Provisional figures suggest uptake of the flu vaccine is similar to last winter. Sturgeon said early information suggests rates have increased slightly among NHS staff, of whom less than 50 per cent were vaccinated last year. The Scottish Conservatives have argued ministers should have done more to boost uptake.

Robsion said: “There was a really robust, big campaign to promote vaccination in the same way as previous years, not just for the public but health and social care staff as well.

“We can’t force people to get the vaccination, all we can do is promote and encourage, and we used every communication channel possible to get that message across.”

Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs said almost two-thirds of NHS workers in England (63 per cent) had flu vaccinations. He claimed: “Nicola Sturgeon tried to put a gloss on the SNP’s response to the winter-flu crisis this morning but failed to explain why so few NHS staff in Scotland have been inoculated. This means doctors and nurses unable to come into work and patients suffering further delays as a result.”