Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has been told he must not use the Covid crisis as an “excuse” for the “spiralling crisis” in Scotland’s NHS.

With new figures yesterdayon Tuesday showing accident and emergency departments had recorded their worst ever waiting times, Mr Yousaf conceded that performance in this area was “not what I would want it to be”. But MSPs also challenged him on other data which showed fewer cancer patients were being diagnosed with the disease early, while Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said that more than 250,000 operations had not gone ahead because of coronavirus.

The Conservative health spokesman, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, questioned the Health Secretary over his performance during the pandemic as he gave a Covid update to Holyrood.

The Tory hit out about the “spiralling crisis in our NHS”, saying that “A&E waiting times are the worst on record, cancer diagnosis at stage one is the lowest since 2012”.

He added: “Covid is part of the problem, yes, but it can’t be used as the excuse. Less operations are now going ahead than when the country was in lockdown in March”.

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Dr Gulhane, who still works as a GP, told the Health Secretary: “We are burning out and need more help.” But he added: “The problem is that this Health Secretary is always a step behind, always announcing funding after the problems starts. The British armed forces support is fantastic, but the Government asked for it too late. If we had a proper winter plan, if this Health Secretary anticipated any issue ahead of time, then Scotland’s NHS wouldn’t be in crisis, our frontline staff wouldn’t be overwhelmed to the point we are now.”

Instead, he claimed the Government approach was “all soundbites, not strategy”. Dr Gulhane said: “It is an approach that might be applauded in ministerial ivory towers but not in our hospital wards, not in our GPs’ surgeries.”

Mr Yousaf responded: “I hate to break it to Dr Gulhane, but it’s all soundbites not strategy is in itself a soundbite. He would do well to steer away from what are remarkably personal attacks – and concentrate on the issues.”

Mr Yousaf added: “I have consistently said that for anybody that suffers as a result of the A&E performance, as a result of the pressures we’re facing, not getting the service I would expect them to, I don’t just regret that but I apologise for any suffering that has been caused.”

But he said the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in pressures on healthcare “not just across the UK but right across Europe and the world”.

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While he accepted that “of course, our A&E performance is not what I would want it to be”, he stressed it was still performing better than in other parts of the UK.

“That is not any comfort to somebody who has to wait 12 hours in an A&E department in Scotland,” the Health Secretary added.

“It is simply a demonstration of the fact these problems are shared right across the UK.”

But Labour health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, said that “A&E waiting times are the worst ever recorded”, adding that “thousands more people are waiting hours for help and staff are reporting that the people they are seeing are sicker than before”.

Mr Cole-Hamilton also voiced concern, telling the Health Secretary: “This isn’t safe. Waiting times like the ones announced this morning are actively putting people in danger, and sometimes, as has happened already, could prove fatal.”

He added: “We also learned this morning that quarter of a million operations have been lost to the Covid pandemic, meaning that the ripple effect of this health crisis right now could rumble on for many years to come.”