State of a nation: what the Scottish elections mean for healthcare opportunities

by Ciaran Johnston

 

Introduction 

The 6 May Scottish parliamentary elections boasted one of the largest turnouts the polls have seen since devolution. Despite some signs of ruptures within the nationalist camp ahead of the election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the election, gaining 64 seats of the available 129, just one seat short of an outright majority. Although the pre-election debates were once again dominated by discussions on independence from the United Kingdom – with gains for the SNP and Scottish Greens indicating pro-independence was the more popular stance – this post-election balance of power may mean much more for the state of healthcare in Scotland than its status within the UK.

Covid-19 poses a serious challenge to delivering better healthcare in Scotland and importantly to tackling some of Scotland’s main public health challenges straining the health system even before the pandemic. With the impending “financed recovery” in Scotland, however, there also come opportunities, and the parties were largely united on a Scottish approach to healthcare and the Covid-19 recovery.

SNP victory

Falling one seat short of an outright majority may not seem as though it will have a major effect on the SNP Government’s priorities over the next 5 years, but it could in fact prove pivotal by providing the Scottish Greens with some sway over the development of healthcare policy. Like the SNP, the Greens are pro-independence, also gaining seats in May’s election, and may hold the balance in key government decision-making, with the SNP Government likely to rely on their support to generate a majority and push through legislation. But with this pro-independence alliance comes differing priorities across other policy areas. Take the Life Sciences strategy as an example. The Greens could push the SNP to adopt a greener and less short-termist, financially driven policy, with the argument being that green initiatives are ultimately good for the economy. The Green’s manifesto pledges are thus important to consider when forecasting the policy landscape of the years ahead, and particularly to what extent they align with those of the SNP. 

Manifesto promises

Importantly for the SNP Government’s health ambitions, manifesto proposals concerning healthcare proved somewhat aligned across most of the parties. Additional funding for the NHS to fund the Covid-19 recovery, an NHS workers' pay rise and a cancer-specific recovery plan featured in most of the manifestos, with the SNP promising to increase funding by at least 20% and to invest a further £100 million to open a further two elective and diagnostics centres. The alignment and parity between the parties on issues such as the NHS recovery, mental health services, and a cancer action plan can only be promising for the SNP and the Scottish people. We can expect little opposition to any desire to implement these plans, especially in the coming year while dealing with the fallout from the pandemic. 

Covid-19 lessons 

The devastation of Covid-19 on healthcare services in Scotland may not yet be fully felt, but the ever-growing backlog of care and the strains on the NHS workforce are already clear. The continued pledges to fund the Covid-19 recovery, the pledge to improve NHS infrastructure and the proposed development of elective and diagnostic centres will be the dominant focus for the SNP and the Scottish Parliament for the next year at least. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has not had a completely negative effect on healthcare. The vaccine programme across the UK, the adoption of new data systems, and the reduction of bureaucracy in adopting new technologies and treatments have all become even more of a priority throughout the pandemic. For the SNP and their Life Sciences Strategy, Heart Disease Action Plan, and Respiratory Care Action Plan, innovation and adoption of technology are at the heart of their aims to improve diagnostic care and treatment. Following the experiences and lessons of Covid-19, reducing bureaucracy and the funding of research has proven to improve services and will continue to play a large part in directing health policy for the SNP.

Conclusion

Recovery from the ongoing pandemic will dominate health policy in Scotland for the coming years. The promise of extra funding and cross-party unity in addressing the backlog of care built up over the pandemic will ensure that health services in Scotland see some revival from the devastation they have seen over the past year. As we have seen however, the election results, the Covid-19 pandemic and the proposed changes to healthcare in the party manifestos all point towards a new opportunity to improve healthcare and to encourage further innovation and technology. With Parliamentary support for new innovative medicines and medical devices, Scotland will pique the interest of global leaders in healthcare development, who will need to capitalise on the growing, supportive market. For the life sciences sector, for cancer services and for data access across the NHS, the relative consensus reached by the parties could prove vital in transforming the health service.

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