SCOTLAND’s Health Secretary has been accused of having “underestimated the scale of the challenge” he faces after admitting it will take years for the NHS to recover from the impacts of the Covd-19 pandemic.

Humza Yousaf has published a five-year recovery plan for the NHS as the service fully remobilises following the worst impacts of the pandemic.

But the Scottish Government has been judged to have shown “gross neglect” by planning for a second independence referendum by the end of 2023 – although the SNP administration has stressed the timescale is dependent on the pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Good Morning Scotland, the Health Secretary was asked when patients can expect normal service to resume in the NHS.

Mr Yousaf stressed that things have been heading in the right direction “in the last few weeks” but added that he has “been honest that things are not back to normal”.

He said: "In terms of elective care, what I would say is we are already trying to work through that backlog.

“Where there is spare theatre space and staff available, we are doing what we can, but many health boards have had to make the decision to prioritise urgent care."

The Health Secretary was pressed over the timescale for a full recovery for the NHS.

He said: “The recovery plan published in the summer was a five-year plan backed by a billion-pound investment.

"I would love to say to people, look the effects of the global pandemic - which has been biggest shock to the NHS in its history - is going to be over in a matter of weeks or even months.”

Mr Yousaf added: "We are still in the midst of the pandemic so it's not possible for me to say that.

"It will take a number of years undoubtedly to recover from the effects of the pandemic but we'll leave no stone unturned to do everything we can to improve the situation."

Following the comments, Scottish LibDem leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said: “The Health Secretary should admit that he had previously underestimated the scale of the challenge and that the present NHS recovery plan is not up to scratch.

“Staff are at their wits end coping not just with the pandemic but with the consequences of 14 years of SNP failure.”

He added: “What is even more astonishing is that despite admitting the recovery will take years the SNP are still promising to focus on another independence referendum as soon as next year. That’s starting to look like gross neglect.

“The Health Secretary and his cabinet colleagues should focus on ensuring the NHS has the support and resources it needs to get through the years to come.”

Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, said: “Our NHS is set to face its worst winter ever and it simply has not been prepared for the challenge by the government. Patients are going to be faced with longer and longer delays for vital procedures to be carried out.

“Humza Yousaf’s flimsy NHS recovery plan simply isn’t cutting it. Instead of his constant knee-jerk reactions, he must urgently set out a clear plan that will fully mobilise frontline services. Otherwise there is no clear route out of this crisis.

“It is galling to hear him talk up the minimal improvement in our A&E waiting times, which are still completely unacceptable.

“My colleagues on the frontline are beyond breaking point and are suffering due to Humza Yousaf’s inaction. If he doesn’t finally get on top of this situation now, it will only prolong our NHS being in crisis mode.”

Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, added: “No-one underestimates the scale of the challenge before our NHS but the SNP must be prepared to shoulder some of the blame for the situation we are in.

"Our NHS was underfunded and under-resourced before the pandemic and the Health Secretary's so-called NHS recovery plan is nothing more than a sticking plaster with old, reheated promises.

“We can avoid years of further hardship in the NHS and the damage that it would cause, but only if we have the political will to do so.

"We need the Health Secretary to stop looking for excuses and to start looking for solutions."