NICOLA Sturgeon has admitted she is not “surprised” that NHS waiting times are still getting worse despite bringing in a legal guarantee to prompt treatment seven years ago.

Opposition MSPs expressed shock at the First Minister’s “audacity” after it emerged the Scottish health service is failing to treat more than a quarter of patients within 12 weeks.

The timescale went into law when Ms Sturgeon was health secretary.

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Earlier this week, official figures showed a record 27.3 per cent of patients waited longer than 12 weeks in the last quarter of 2018, the equivalent of 200 breaches each day.

Critics said the guarantee of 2012 was now “utterly worthless”.

At First Minister’s Questions, Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said Mrs Sturgeon had given repeated reassurances the situation would improve, but to no avail.

He said: “Was the First Minister surprised on Tuesday that waiting time performance fell yet again?”

Ms Sturgeon said: “No, I was not. If Willie Rennie had read the Waiting Times Improvement Plan he would not have been surprised either.”

The £850m investment plan forecasts 25% of patients will still be missing the 12 week target by October 2019, then 15% by October 2020 and none at all by March 2021.

Ms Sturgeon went on: “It is regrettable that we are where we are with waiting times, but we set out very frankly the challenge, and the trajectory that waiting times improvement would take. It is all set out in black and white in the waiting times improvement plan.”

Mr Rennie said: “I’ve badgered the First Minister to tackle appalling long waits for treatment for years.

“The government is breaking its own treatment time law 200 times a day and the First Minister has the audacity to say she’s not surprised things are getting worse.

“What hope does that offer for patients across the country?”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon added: “This is a striking admission from Nicola Sturgeon, and it will hardly fill NHS staff with confidence.

“The reality is there has been too much complacency from the Scottish government on NHS performance, setting NHS staff targets and then not delivering the support and resources needed to deliver them. Nicola Sturgeon’s uncharacteristic straight answer reveals a lot about the condition of our health service.”

Acting Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said Ms Sturgeon’s record on the 12-week guarantee was an “unqualified failure”, and criticised a fall in hospital safety and cleanliness inspections.

These have halved from 38 in 2014/15 to 19 in 2017/18 as a result of Healthcare Improvement Scotland diverting resources to reviewing elderly care in acute hospitals.

Ms Sturgeon said infections, such as those recently in two Glasgow hospitals, were taken seriously, but the overall trend in infection rates in Scotland’s hospitals was downwards.

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She said: “In the early days of my time as health secretary, Clostridium difficile and MRSA were big concerns in our hospitals, and there have been 80-plus per cent reductions in the rates of those infections.

“For Jackson Carlaw not to recognise that does not do a disservice to me or the health secretary but does an enormous disservice to staff right across our national health service.”

Mr Carlaw said: “Public confidence in the safety and cleanliness of our hospitals has been shaken due to the recently reported infection outbreaks.

“These figures show that, over the last five years, the number of safety and cleanliness inspections of our hospitals has more than halved compared to 2014.

“The First Minister sought to pass the buck – but she and Health Secretary need to ensure inspections are increased to previous levels. The tragic events at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow over the last few months demand no less.”