NHS leaders do not make Scottish Government policy, Nicola Sturgeon said as she was questioned on reports suggesting discussion of a “two-tier” health service.
On Monday, the BBC reported NHS managers had met in October to examine ideas for reforming a health service in crisis.
One of the ideas put forward was to “design a two-tier system where the people who can afford to, go private”.
The report sparked outrage, but the Scottish Government – including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Health Secretary Humza Yousaf – were quick to deny there is any plan for such a system.
During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon reiterated her stance, saying: “None of these ideas that would have any impact on the founding principles of the National Health Service are being discussed or remotely considered by this Government, this can’t be clearer.”
Under questioning from Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, she added: “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.
“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’m First Minister, never will be up for discussion.”
She went on to say NHS leaders “can discuss what they want”.
Mr Ross said the First Minister is in “denial” about the state of the health service.
“Nurses are on strike for the first time ever, we have waiting times at record highs, people can’t see their GPs and health chiefs are warning of a two-tier system in our NHS,” he said.
“It is quite clear that the First Minister is in complete denial about how her Health Secretary is handling the NHS crisis, in denial about the scale of privatisation in the health service that she oversees, and in denial about Humza Yousaf’s two-tier system that has already become the norm in Scotland.”
Mr Ross quoted figures claiming an 84% rise in the use of private healthcare since the pandemic, higher than in England or Wales.
The First Minister also defended Mr Yousaf after the minutes of the NHS meeting said the Health Secretary is “divorced from reality”.
When asked if the NHS leaders are right, Ms Sturgeon said they are not.
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said Scotland already has a two-tier health system, as figures showed more than 39,000 patients underwent private procedures in the past year.
The figures include thousands of hip and knee surgeries, costing an average of £12,500 per patient.
Mr 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 2,000 people have gone for private treatment for endoscopies and colonoscopies – privately these treatments cost an average of £1,995.
“Over 7,800 have gone private for a cataract surgery – average cost £2,660 – and a staggering 3,500 people have had a hip or knee replacement in a private hospital – average cost £12,500.
“These figures make clear that under the SNP, healthcare in Scotland is already a two-tier system.”
Ms Sturgeon said she does “not accept that there was a two-tier health system in Scotland”.
The First Minister also said Mr Sarwar failed to take into consideration the cancellation of treatment because of the Covid pandemic.
She said: “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.”