NICOLA Sturgeon has accused opposition parties of “political game playing” over the state of Scotland’s NHS. 

The First Minister insisted she had “absolute confidence” in Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

Last week Labour branded him “the worst health secretary since devolution,” blaming him for unprecedented waits in A&E and record vacancies of critical NHS staff. 

The beleaguered minister’s week only got worse when Scotland’s nurses voted to strike for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s 106-year-history. 

Scottish Ambulance Service workers have now confirmed that they too will stage a 26-hour strike later this month over pay.

Visiting a school on Monday, the First Minister told the PA: “I have absolute confidence in Humza Yousaf.”

“Anybody who thinks the challenges – the very real challenges – our National Health Service is facing now is down to who the Health Secretary is, probably doesn’t understand the nature of those challenges,” she added.

The First Minister said that the NHS was performing “better in many respects” than the health service in England and Wales. 

“I think what we need to see from the opposition is a bit less political game-playing over the NHS and a real focus on the very real and very hard challenges that our National Health Service is facing.

“That is what I am bringing to bear and that is what Humza Yousaf is bringing to bear.”

On strikes, the First Minister said there was “political will” to come back with a higher pay offer, but the government simply did not have the money. 

“The management of the health service is absolutely the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but our ability to put more resources into the health service depends on decisions taken by the UK Government which determines the overall size of our budget,” she said.

“We can see from the higher pay increase that NHS workers are being offered in Scotland compared to England and Wales, that political will is there in Scotland – what is holding us back is a lack of funding, and that can only come now from the UK Government.”

Scottish Labour Health spokesperson Jackie Baillie hit back at the First Minister.

She said: “The current Health Secretary is the worst since devolution.

"He is facing substantial strike action, and has overseen chaos in every area of the NHS.

"Waiting times for ambulances, waiting times at A&E and waiting times for elective surgery are at an all time high.

“It is far from 'political game playing' to point this out. Humza Yousaf has failed to act and has lost the confidence of both patients and staff.

“He is unable to give basic information on his contingency plan in the event that strikes go ahead, or even when he will meet with unions to try and avert strike action.

“Despite what the First Minister may say, Humza Yousaf is completely out of his depth and absolutely has to go.”

Scottish Conservative Shadow Health Secretary, Dr Sandesh Gulhane said the First Minister was trying to "deflect attention elsewhere."

He added: “The SNP Health Secretary has been a record breaker for all the wrong reasons since taking up the post eighteen months ago.

“Our NHS has lurched into an ever-deeper crisis on Humza Yousaf’s watch and a truly catastrophic winter lies ahead if he remains in post.

“A&E waiting times are the worst on record. Delayed discharges levels at their highest ever level. Cancer waiting times have spiralled out on control.

"He has completely lost the trust of frontline staff. And he’s relying on unreliable or corrupted data to spin his way out of the mess he’s created.

“All of that has occurred during Humza Yousaf’s tenure and his flimsy NHS recovery plan has simply failed.

“Nicola Sturgeon must take responsibility, accept her Health Secretary is failing patients and staff every single day, and sack him now.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "Statements like this have a habit of being the kiss of death for beleaguered ministers 

"Virtually every measure of health service performance has got worse on Humza Yousaf’s watch. The number of people enduring the longest waits in A&E has gone up by over 1000%. 

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for a burnout prevention strategy, a staff assembly and the overhaul of pay and conditions to calm the crisis.

"These proposals have been voted down or ignored by the SNP/Green coalition on Humza Yousaf’s orders. 

"Nicola Sturgeon is asking people to believe that there is nobody who could do the job better.”