SCOTLAND'S health service is to remain on an emergency footing for at least another six months.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said the NHS is "continuing to deal with a challenging combination of issues". 

Critics accused him of being too slow in dealing with the crisis and called on SNP ministers to urgently publish a winter plan for the health service.

Mr Yousaf revealed the latest move in a written answer to a parliamentary question at Holyrood submitted by SNP MSP Emma Harper.

This sparked anger from opposition politicians, who insisted he should have updated the Scottish Parliament in person. 

Former health secretary Jeane Freeman initially put the NHS on an emergency footing for a minimum of three months when Covid first hit Scotland in March 2020.

Mr Yousaf confirmed this will continue until at least April.

Accident and emergency departments recently recorded their worst ever waiting times performance, while the Scottish Government has called in the help of both the army and firefighters to drive some non-emergency vehicles.

Mr Yousaf said: "Whilst we are beginning to see a reduction in the numbers of new Covid cases, the last few weeks have been enormously difficult and our health and care services are continuing to deal with a challenging combination of issues.

"With the continued increased demands on services across health and social care, we must ensure that the vital services provided by our NHS are protected as we move into a challenging winter period.

"This means we must continue with a measured and consistent approach to remobilising and renewing across our system, learning from the pressures we were subjected to over the last year and maintaining the ability to quickly respond and intervene, where necessary.

"I am also mindful of the impact of these pressures on our excellent health and care staff, many of whom have been on the frontline of the Covid response for a considerable period.

"It is clear that as we move into the winter period, we need to continue to balance the capacity of the NHS to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic against increasing demands of emergency, urgent and planned care and delayed discharges.

"With this in mind, I have decided that the NHS will remain on an emergency footing until at least March 31, 2022."

Tory MSP Dr Sandesh Gulhane, his party's health spokesman, said Mr Yousaf "has been too slow in getting on top of the crisis in our NHS".

He added: "Our health service would be better served by him delivering a winter plan for our NHS, rather than prioritising photo ops.

"He’s had to call in the British Army to sort out ambulance wait times. My colleagues in the health service are completely overwhelmed.

"It is astonishing Humza Yousaf didn’t announce a decision of this magnitude to Parliament first."

Dr Gulhane accused the Health Secretary of seeking "to avoid scrutiny despite confirming our health service will be on an emergency footing for at least another six months".

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: "This is an incredibly serious revelation which underlines the scale of the crisis in our NHS.

"This crisis did not come out of the blue, nor was it inevitable.

"The SNP's catastrophic mishandling of the NHS has led us to this situation, with lives now at risk.

"The SNP must now be prepared to pull out all the stops to ensure our NHS is not further overwhelmed this winter and to tackle the growing NHS backlog."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the move was "clear evidence that NHS and care services are ill prepared to tackle winter workloads".

He said: "The SNP's recovery plan is riddled with holes and their promise to increase NHS activity by 10 per cent looks delusional."