Health In The Highlands - What Could Yousaf’s Election Means For Scottish Healthcare

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

To “recover and reform our NHS” was the second of Scotland’s new First Minister Humza Yousaf’s “immediate” priorities in a speech he made when he assumed office on the 27th of March. Though an admirable goal, as Scotland’s NHS faces the same turmoil as the rest of the UK, it could be argued as a rich statement from a man who has been the Scottish Secretary for Health and Social care since 2021.

Healthcare, since 2017, has consistently ranked as either the first or second, currently second, most important issue facing Britain according to YouGov. Though some opinion polls report differently, Healthcare and the NHS always float to around the top three. One report from earlier this year claims Scots see it as their top priority, marking a sizeable disparity between the concerns of the people and perceived concerns of their majority party, the SNP.  

So, now that Humza Yousaf, who was a relatively unknown politician and healthcare minister before Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, has inherited an office in charge of almost 5.5 million people and its own NHS, separate to England’s, it seems appropriate to dig deeper into his history and healthcare policy to determine what his appointment means for health in the highlands.

Who is Humza Yousaf?

The SNP’s newly elected leader, Humza Yousaf, is a man of firsts. Obviously, he’s the First Minister for Scotland (FMS), but he’s also the first man of asian heritage to lead the country, the first Muslim to lead a major British party, the youngest FMS and first to be elected in his thirties, and the first British politician to make his oath in Urdu. His election is clearly a win for diversity and representation in Britain; both Scotland and the UK are led by men of South Asian ancestry for the first time. 

But ironically, this trailblazing record-breaker is actually the self-declared ‘continuity’ candidate. While genetically representing a huge leap forward, his politics represent a continuation of the Sturgeon era SNP, characterised by socially progressive policies and a huge drive for Scottish Independence. Yousaf sat in Sturgeon’s Cabinet for almost five years, initially as Justice Secretary in 2018 before being appointed Secretary for Health and Social Care in 2021. Thus, he is closely aligned with the current political momentum of his party. 

So what does this mean in regards to Healthcare?

According to their website, the SNP stress the importance of ‘preventative healthcare’ under their healthcare policy, as well as stating: “The SNP believe the NHS should remain a publicly owned, operates [sic] and funded service. We will not follow the privatisation agenda of the Westminster government” and that they “will ensure that the frontline health budget rises by at least £2 billion by the end of this Parliament”. It is unlikely, given his ‘continuity’ label, that Yousaf will deviate far from this current policy.

Stint as Healthcare Secretary

While the healthcare policies of the SNP during Yousaf’s stint as the Secretary for Health have remained mostly unchanged, Yousaf’s reputation definitely has. In his leadership bid, Yousaf was seen as the young person’s choice, promising a stable continuation of Sturgeon’s progressive, left-leaning policies. But his reputation as Health Secretary was marred with troubles.

He inherited the position amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, evidently he had his work cut out for him, but he immediately mischaracterised coronavirus diagnoses, accidentally inflating the number of children’s cases admitted, causing a stir. A month later, in July 2021, he was among a few SNP politicians on holiday and accused of being ‘missing in action’ at a time when six out of ten European covid hotspots were located in Scotland.

Shortly after, NHS waiting times reached their worst possible and Yousaf urged Scots to “think twice” before phoning for an ambulance, a move criticised as reckless. After asking the Ministry of Defence to deploy army soldiers to aid the crisis, it was determined that 500 people died in Scotland as a direct result of the emergency delays.

Of course, these events cannot be pinned exclusively on Yousaf as a Secretary; the virulence of the disease made this time incredibly difficult for the health service. However, his reputation was hit badly, especially for his ill-timed holiday, with one Holyrood opponent labelling him “the worst health secretary since devolution”, presiding over an NHS on the “brink of a humanitarian crisis”.

Campaign for Leadership

The leadership race seemed to be fought on two key issues: Scottish independence, and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, both of which Yousaf more or less promised to continue Sturgeon’s work, though notably he does not view the next general election as a de facto independence referendum like his predecessor. 

Yousaf won the premiership with a result of 52% to 48%, demonstrating a deep divide in his party - interestingly, these results are the same as the last big referendum to demonstrate a deep divide in British politics. So, while Yousaf may have his work cut out for him to unite a polarised party, the division does not come from his healthcare policy. Therefore, It is difficult to assess from recent events what the future of NHS Scotland and Health care more generally will look like. 

What happens in the future for health care in Scotland relies much on his other policies, specifically independence. The NHS in England is being increasingly privatised by the Conservatives, and calls for further privatisation are not infrequent, which could galvanise further motion towards independence. If this is achieved, it is likely the SNP would backtrack on NHS privatisation and increase funding, at least according to their official policy.

Scottish Attitudes

However, despite healthcare being an important issue for the Scottish, and Yousaf having years of experience overseeing its administration, having talked to some Scots on the ground the most ubiquitous feeling towards his appointment is apathy. A general apathy towards the leadership race, his succession, and his policies. 

Perhaps the fact that there are only around 70,000 members of the SNP, a number that has suffered a significant decline in recent years, to make a decision for all 5.5 million Scots makes all those ineligible to vote mostly indifferent. Perhaps it is the aforementioned disparity between the priorities of regular people in Scotland and the party that leads them. Or maybe it is the lack of representation in Westminster. 

Either way, Yousaf’s premiership is not seen as particularly radical, or even particularly interesting. And as for healthcare, it is unlikely he will deviate the path much further from the one it is already on.