Letter to Scotland's new health minister

Dear Michael Matheson MSP,

Congratulations on your appointment as Scotland’s Minister for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care. You have a huge task ahead of you in this role and we wish you the very best of luck on behalf of every Scot.

As patients and families from right across Scotland, we are writing to ask you to make dealing with the crisis in access to NHS care for patients your number one priority.

The problems with the Scottish NHS are well-known to any Scot who has needed healthcare in the last few years.

  • Almost 800,000 of us need care right now but have to wait weeks or even months for it, according to the latest Public Health Scotland figures. 
  • Nearly 160,000 of us are waiting for key tests, with many worrying that they are losing crucial time to start treatment.  
  • The wait for emergency care is also extremely worrying. We know that in the first week of 2016, just three people waited longer than 12 hours in an A&E. In the first week of this year, that number was 2511.
  • We are losing GP surgeries annually, going from 935 surgeries two years ago to 922 last year. This means we have even less access to our doctors and GP surgery staff as they struggle to cope with the ever-increasing pressure.

Our NHS clearly needs more funding to build more capacity, which means that tackling this crisis means fighting tooth and nail to get the Scottish NHS the funding it needs from Westminster. We are asking you to commit to fighting on the side of patients to secure the NHS the budget it needs.

But we also know that it matters very much how whatever funding we have is deployed. We want to make one thing clear: more privatisation and outsourcing in Scotland’s NHS is not a solution to this crisis, it is part of the problem.

The Scottish National Party has always been clear that there will be no privatisation in Scotland’s NHS under their watch. In your 2015-2016 programme for government, the SNP pledged to "effectively eliminate the use of the private sector for planned care". In the UK parliament, SNP MPs pushed for a Protection Bill that would protect the NHS from privatisation.

But there is no doubt that that pledge has now been broken. We are asking you to reverse this betrayal of your commitments.

In 2019-2020, even before the pandemic, the Scottish Government committed £18 million to block book all private healthcare capacity in Scotland. 

Furthermore, as The Herald revealed in 2021, the NHS National Services Scotland, a Scottish government body, opened the door to NHS privatisation in Scotland through the so-called Dynamic Purchasing Systems, inviting private for-profit companies to supply quotes for 1500 medical procedures normally provided by the NHS in Scotland. 

But this is far from a recent problem. A 2014 Freedom of Information request revealed that the Scottish government paid at least £482 million to private healthcare companies between 2007-8 and 2013-14, even while recognising that the real figures may be significantly higher as much of the spending information for the different NHS Scotland Boards is not collected centrally.

NHS privatisation ultimately costs more in the long term although it might seem like a quick fix. We are either building up the NHS’s own capacity, which is available to us in the long term and belongs to all of us as a country, or we are building up private companies. This crisis is your opportunity to build up NHS capacity. Spending our money on private companies is not simply unwise but also poor management of public finances.

Scots know instinctively that the aims of private healthcare companies and those of the publicly owned and run NHS are fundamentally very different. The NHS cares about curing the sick in the first instance, while private healthcare companies care about making profits in the first instance.

If you needed evidence of this, the recent research by The Ferret showing that private healthcare companies are charging Scots who are in dire health situations £250 in the midst of a cost of living crisis to see a doctor for JUST 15 minutes, should put it beyond doubt. 

Private companies have no compunctions at all about taking advantage of our suffering; forcing us to go into debt, deplete our savings, or beg for help from strangers online, just so they can make profits. And who can blame them? That is what they are in business for. 

But we have a right to hold any politician accountable who depends on these same profiteers as part of the solution to this crisis. Privatisation is part of the problem in the first place.

What is more, with The Ferret’s revelation that many of the private healthcare companies cashing in on the NHS crisis have Labour and Conservative politicians and donors as shareholders and directors, it is time for you to put it beyond any doubt that there is no clandestine systematic effort to undermine our beloved Scottish NHS in such a way as to create market opportunities for profit making health companies.

A University of Oxford study has linked NHS outsourcing in England to the preventable deaths of 557 people. There is no reason to think Scotland is exempt from such effects of NHS privatisation and outsourcing.

As patients and families from every part of Scotland who care deeply about our NHS, we are asking you: will you commit to funding our NHS to build up its capacity and to keeping your party’s promise of eliminating privatisation and outsourcing within it?

Thank you for your time.