JOHN Swinney has apologised to the family of the latest victim of Scotland’s ambulance crisis, saying he was very sorry for the “agony” they were going through.

The deputy First Minister told MSPs that it was “unacceptable” that Richard Brown had died alone on the stairs of his Glasgow tenement after waiting five hours for an ambulance.

The 55-year-old had been struggling to breathe as he tried to get to his third floor flat on Hathaway Lane in Maryhill last week. 

Mr Brown’s case was raised by opposition leaders at FMQs, where Mr Swinney was standing in for Nicola Sturgeon while she attended the COP26 climate summit.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the "distressing case" of Mr Brown was not unique and "lives are being lost that could have been saved".

Labour leader Anas Sarwar said an "out of touch and hopeless government" was presiding over a crisis in the NHS.

Mr Swinney said: “Mr Brown should not have had the experience that he had and I am very sorry that Mr Brown’s family are enduring the added agony that they are having to endure in addition to the loss of Mr Brown.

“An investigation into the circumstances relating to the delay in reaching Mr Brown has been launched and all findings and lessons will be shared with Mr Brown’s family.”

In September, Ms Sturgeon was forced to apologise “unreservedly” for long ambulance waits after a 65-year-old man died after waiting 40 hours for paramedics to arrive.

Mr Swinney said there was "enormous pressure" on the health service, with the ambulance service responding to 5,788 immediately life-threatening incident in August 2018, but 10,733 in October this year, almost twice as many.

He said: "The government has provided increased investment of £20m to support staff, and staff recruitment is under way.

"We will continue to invest in the work of the Scottish Ambulance Service to ensure it has the capacity to undertake the tasks it needs to undertake, and to ensure that other families don't have the experience of Mr Brown's family."

Mr Sarwar said: “Mr Brown isn’t the first avoidable death this winter, and if action isn’t taken, he will not be the last. People are dying not because we don’t have the treatments to help them, but because help isn’t coming fast enough.”

He said extra funding announced in September across the health service “was not enough”, “When will the Government come forward with a sufficient package of support so we can prevent unnecessary suffering and deaths this winter?”

Mr Swinney said one of the reasons why the ambulance service was under so much pressure was because of a “significant increase in demand for its services” because of the general rise in demand as a consequence of the Covid pandemic.

Mr Sarwar said the problems with the NHS in Scotland had been building throughout the SNP’s 14 years in power, long before the Covid pandemic.

H then cited a new survey of 300 Scottish Ambulance Service workers by the Unite union which found a collapse in staff morale, and 98 per cent of respondents saying they did not consider an extra £20m announced for the service in September to be enough for winter.

He told Ms Swinney: “We hear all the talk about record numbers of staff – the facts are this; 79% of the staff believe that they are understaffed and there are not enough of them.

“Listen to NHS staff, don’t ignore them.”

Mr Swinney, who said he was troubled by the findings of the survey, responded: “I assure Mr Sarwar and the public that the Government is absolutely determined to ensure that we use all of the resources available to us to make sure individuals receive the care they require.”

Also citing Mr Brown’s death and the Unite survey, Mr Douglas Ross said ambulance staff were “crying out for help”.

He quoted Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty saying frontline staff were sending the government their own a 999 call saying they were exhausted, stressed and exhausted.

Mr Ross said: “Scotland’s NHS needs more support – this winter is going to be its toughest ever test. There’s an extra £605m coming to the Scottish Government this year, how much Mr Swinney dodged the question by saying it was an issue for the Scottish budget on December 9, and said employment in the NHS was at a record high.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton revealed a Freedom of Information request had uncovered a four-fold increase in ambulance staff absences because of mental health issues in the last four years.

The hours of absence have risen from 9,734 hours in July to September 2017 to 40,455 during the same quarter this year, while the number of staff affected rose from 63 to 201.

He asked Mr Swinney to “put himself in the shoes of our hard-working emergency staff”, and urged him to “stop grasping at straws, stop blaming the pandemic and accept his Government is letting these vital members of staff down”.

Mr Swinney stressed again the “significant impact” Covid has had on the NHS, saying: “Anybody that comes to Parliament and seeks to diminish the enormous impact of Covid on the National Health Service is not recognising the reality of the situation we are facing.”

Mr Cole-Hamilton shouted “Stop hiding” and “complete denial” to Mr Swinney’s answer.

The row coincided with the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland releasing the findings of its indicative ballot on strike action over pay. 

Six in ten respondents said they would be willing to strike, while 90 per cent said they would be willing to take industrial action short of striking,.

However the turnout was only 30% of RCN members working in the NHS in Scotland, and a further, statutory ballot would be required before any industrial action could take place.

Julie Lamberth, Chair, RCN Scotland Board said: “The thought of taking industrial action does not sit well with nursing staff. So the response to our indicative ballot demonstrates how difficult things are within the NHS. The Scottish government must act now to protect patient safety and ensure we can retain and recruit the nursing workforce Scotland needs.

“We remain committed to keeping members informed and will update them shortly.”

Graham Revie, Chair, RCN Trade Union Committee said: “The years of being under-valued have taken their toll and the pressure of the pandemic has left many considering their future in the profession. The link between low pay, staff shortages and patient safety is clear. 

“We will now be considering our next steps in our campaigns to achieve staffing for safe and effective care and fair pay for nursing.”

Commenting on the news that RCN members have voted in favour of industrial action, Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said: “This is a historic moment that should shame the SNP.  

“The overwhelming demand for action shows just how badly nurses have been treated.

“It is a disgrace that they have been pushed to this unprecedented measure in the aftermath of their heroic efforts during the pandemic.

“Nobody wants to strike, but applause doesn’t pay bills. The SNP must give nurses the fair deal they deserve so we can avoid the need for industrial action.”

Tory MSP Dr Sandesh Gulhane added: “The fact that nurses are set to strike should set alarm bells ringing among the SNP Government. Nurses have gone above and beyond during the pandemic and it is clear they are now past breaking point.

“SNP Ministers have failed time and time again to fully give our frontline nurses the resources they require to deliver the care patients need - as the record number of vacancies indicates.

“Nurses voting for strike action is endemic of the crisis engulfing our NHS on Humza Yousaf’s watch. He must urgently intervene to ensure this action does not go ahead.”