The strain Scotland’s NHS is facing as the Covid-19 pandemic continues has been a significant topic of debate recently, with ambulance capacity issues, increased waiting times in A and E, and rising hospital admissions making news.
Speaking at Holyrood, Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie cited John Thomson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Scotland, who suggested Scotland required 1,000 more hospital beds to relieve some of the pressure on the NHS.
Baillie went on to claim that under the SNP’s government, bed numbers had reduced by more than that amount.
Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it Mostly True.
Hospital bed numbers are regularly reported as an example of the resources available to the NHS.
Annual figures on the number of hospital beds are released by Public Health Scotland. The latest figures available cover the year up to 31 March 2020, eight days after Scotland’s national Covid-19 lockdown came into force.
Available beds are the number of beds which are staffed and ready to take incoming patients.
This number has reduced over the past decade. In 2019-20, there were 13,156 available beds across NHS Scotland. This is a slight increase on the previous year but 1,189 less than ten years ago when figures in 2010-11 showed there were 14,345 available beds.
Wider figures for all specialties are also held. These also show a broad decline in the number of available beds from 24,795 in 2010-11 to 20,614 in 2019-20.
Data on acute specialties beds in 2020-21 was released soon after this fact check was published. It showed a further reduction in bed capacity to 12,869. Jackie Baillie’s claim was made before these figures were published.
So why are there fewer beds available than ten years ago?
According to Public Health Scotland, the number of beds has reduced due to advances in medical treatment leading to shorter stays in hospital, as well as a move towards treatment in so-called “ambulatory settings”, which means care and treatment given without requiring admission to hospital.
The data shows that bed numbers have declined consistently over the last 20 years.
Another way to measure how hospital bed capacity is dealing with patient numbers is the percentage occupancy. This tells us how many of the beds are filled on average at any time. The percentage occupancy across acute specialties in 2019-20 was 86.7 per cent. This has gradually increased from 84.2 per cent occupancy in 2010-11.
However this has been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True
Jackie Baillie MSP’s claim that 1,200 beds had been cut from the NHS in the last ten years is based on accurate figures. The latest data shows there are just under 1,200 fewer acute specialties beds than there were in 2011-12.
However, these statistics mostly predate the Covid-19 pandemic, when capacity and occupancy increased across NHS Scotland. The number of available beds had been consistently reducing before the pandemic as healthcare moved away from inpatient procedures and medical advances made hospital stays shorter.
All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here.
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