SCOTTISH Labour has proposed the mass merger of the country’s health boards moments after attacking the SNP’s plan to centralise case services.

Deputy leader Jackie Baillie said her party would reduce the number of territorial boards from 14 to three if it came to power at the 2026 Holyrood election.

She said the days of sticking plaster solutions were over and it was time to be “bold”.

The change would see huge boards created in the West, East and North of Scotland, with the three island boards absorbed into the Northern Board.

Ms Baillie said the move would cut bureaucracy and managers and save up to £20million.

Moments earlier she attacked the SNP care plans as a "national centralisation service".

The board upheaval could be a distraction as the NHS tries to recover from the long aftermath of Covid and create uncertainty over people’s employment.

A party official described it as a “massive machinery of government change” but insisted that voters would not mind, and decision making would be brought closer to clinicians.

Addressing delegates on the opening day of Scottish Labour’s conference in Edinburgh, Ms Baillie said the NHS was in crisis under the SNP and health secretary Humza Yousaf.

She said: “The NHS is faced with some of the greatest challenges in its history. But we also have the opportunity to be bold, and chart a new course for our NHS.

“That’s why Labour will deliver a bold and ambitious future for our NHS that is primary care-led, focuses on preventative healthcare and rewards staff.

“And we will do proper workforce planning – training the doctors and nurses Scotland needs.

“In the months ahead we will continue to set out our plans to fix the crisis in our NHS but let me be clear – the days of sticking plaster solutions are over.

“The NHS of tomorrow must be rooted in local communities, and free at the point of need

“At the moment we have 31 Health & Social Care Partnerships, 14 Territorial Health Boards, 8 Special Health Boards and 3 regulatory bodies.

“Each of these have a chief executive, directors of finance, directors of HR, and an army of spin doctors. The cost of that alone is over £20m.

“And as the performance of our NHS has declined, the amount of bureaucracy and the number of managers has soared. This is the wrong priority.

“That’s why today I can announce that Scottish Labour will cut the red tape, and reduce the number of territorial boards to 3 and merge the special boards.

“By doing this, we will push decision-making down to the local level, empower clinicians and focus on supporting frontline staff. Just think £20million would pay for over 700 nurses.

“The people of Scotland don’t care where the health board headquarters is based.

“But they do care about being able to access their GP close to home and specialist services at their local hospital.”

The current budget for all the boards is £13.7billion, so a £20m saving would represent just 0.15 per cent of that.

However earlier in her speech Ms Baillie had attacked the SNP’s plans to create a new national care service, with harmonised standards and changes to people’s jobs.

A widely criticised Bill to create is currently going through Holyrood.

Ms Baillie said: “I’ve said from day one that Scottish Labour support in principle the idea of a National Care Service – after all, we proposed it over a decade ago.

“But what is being offered is nothing more than a National Centralisation Service which will do nothing to support those receiving care or the workforce.

“Workers don’t want it, care providers don’t want it, those receiving care are concerned and no less than 4 parliamentary committees have demanded that the bill is paused.

“Today I am sending a message to them – This damaging and dangerous bill should be paused, withdraw in its current form and bring back once it has had proper input from trade unions, care providers and those providing care.” 

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, whose party was in coalition with Labout the last time it was in power at Holyrood, attacked the merger idea.

He told the Herald: “I don’t see any logic or any virtue in asset stripping local community health services of the levers they need to deliver health and social care in their areas.”

Simon Barker, Deputy Chair of BMA Scotland, said: "We do need to ask some serious questions about how best we deliver services in the future and have an open and honest debate about the long-term future of our NHS.

"Of course, structures are an important part of that, and we need to ensure that the way our NHS is run allows staff to focus on and deliver the best possible care they can for the people of Scotland.

"To head down this route will obviously need detailed and clear plans set out – and we’ll await that and look at them closely before coming to final views.

"But equally we need to make sure discussions on structure aren’t allowed to become a distraction from the fundamental questions about what we ask of our NHS, how we fund and resource that properly and ensure that we stick to the founding principles of an NHS free at the point of need.

"Any plans around the future of health boards must also come with a renewed and crystal clear focus on staffing, with a proper workforce plan and immediate support and steps around pay, pensions, workload and working conditions to ensure we retain the staff we have and attract the workforce of the future.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said later the NHS was a "treasured creation" but it had obvious challenges.

He said: "Right now, we have 14 health boards, 31 integrated joint boards, and 8 specialist health boards.

"That’s 53 boards for a health service for just 5-and-a-half million people.

"It means we have a top-down, bloated, manager-heavy, unaccountable suffocation of the dedicated NHS workforce.

"In the case of Greater Glasgow and Clyde, they even cover-up the truth from the public, with tragic consequences for families that I have repeatedly highlighted.

"By cutting NHS red tape and scrapping unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, we can streamline our NHS, empower clinicians and improve patient outcomes.

"We need fewer chief executives. More doctors. Fewer managers. More nurses.

"By reducing the number of health boards to three, we can cut the number of managerial posts and free up funds to invest in the NHS workforce, in local health centres, in GP surgeries, and in hospitals.

"It’s time to end the waste and return the NHS to the people of Scotland."