PATIENTS at a health board under code black measures are being forced to contact the Samaritans for support after becoming “very afraid of being sick”, an MSP has warned.

On Wednesday, NHS Lanarkshire announced it had asked all GPs to focus on the most urgent and time-critical care as part of a “managed suspension of services”.

The health board declared a code black alert in October last year as hospitals came under pressure.

NHS Lanarkshire said it was dealing with record Covid case numbers and ongoing staff sickness absences, and that the “managed suspension of services” would be in place for the next four weeks.

Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Labour MSP Monica Lennon told Nicola Sturgeon that “people in Lanarkshire are “very afraid of becoming sick”.

She added: “The code black situation has been going on for 12 weeks now.

“What am I supposed to tell constituents in Lanarkshire who are reaching for the Samaritans Scotland phone number because they cannot get through to general practice surgeries and they feel that they are not allowed to go to accident and emergency?

“The letter from NHS Lanarkshire did not even mention mental health. It is very scary for someone who is not a doctor and cannot decide whether they are an urgent case to hear about the suspension of services.”

The First Minster said she acknowledged it was “a really anxious time” for patients.

She added: “All of us want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, and key to that is getting and keeping Covid under control and supporting the NHS to recover as we do that and come out of Covid.

“The measure is a short-term one. Nobody wants or will allow it to be in place for longer than is necessary, and we will continue to take steps to support the NHS to get all services back to normal as quickly as possible for all patients across the country.”

Earlier, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar claimed that NHS Lanarkshire was now an “emergency-only service” following the temporary prioritisation.

The First Minister highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the NHS, saying the suspension of services will not last any longer than necessary.

Mr Sarwar said problems with NHS capacity predate the pandemic and are getting “worse, not better”.

He said: “This is an unprecedented situation affecting the health and wellbeing of over 650,000 Scots.

“Isn’t it the case that for people in Lanarkshire, their entire health service has now effectively been turned into an emergency-only service?”

Ms Sturgeon disagreed, saying coronavirus has dealt the health service “two significant additional blows” in the last 10 months.

She said NHS Lanarkshire is in level two of its GP escalation framework for the next four weeks, which is not the most serious level.

The First Minister said: “That ensures that given the staff absences that are being experienced right now, we can continue to focus on the patients who most need care “None of us want to be in this position, we hope we’ll be out of this position sooner rather than later.”

Scottish Conservative health spokesperson, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, said the move by NHS Lanarkshire was “further proof of the Health Secretary’s lack of a coherent plan to deal with the huge pressures on Scotland’s health service”.

He added: “I’m calling on NHS Lanarkshire Health Board to be put on level five, the highest level of supervision by the Scottish Government, until this crisis is resolved.

“There is a staffing shortage across our NHS – and it’s particularly acute in GP services. As a practising GP myself, I know the immense stress colleagues are under.

“Humza Yousaf must urgently come up with a strategy for managing the NHS crisis.

“His efforts to ease pressure on A&E departments saw him direct patients from emergency wards towards GP services whenever possible. But NHS Lanarkshire’s announcement shows that this has only shunted patients from one under-resourced part of the health service to another.”