“NHS waiting times [… are] improving following the pandemic”

That was the claim from Humza Yousaf on Tuesday in his maiden speech to the Scottish parliament as first minister.

Let’s take a look.

Very long waits coming down?

There are various ways to measure waiting times – and waiting lists – in Scotland’s NHS.

Mr Yousaf didn’t specify which metric he had in mind. But after the speech, the Scottish government told FactCheck that “despite significant ongoing pressures, we continue to make progress in improving waiting times”.

The spokesperson pointed us to reductions in the number of patients waiting more than two years for appointments and treatment.

The Scottish government also told us that the number of people waiting more than two years for an outpatient appointment halved between September and December 2022. And that the number waiting that long for inpatient and day case treatment fell 28 per cent between June and December.

(Though the spokesperson didn’t mention that this inpatient figure actually rose very slightly in the latest monthly data – from 6,713 in November to 6,856 in December.)

Patchy performance against the ‘18-week’ standard

Away from these excessively long waits, performance against Scotland’s key waiting times targets is showing only very modest improvement – or even getting worse.

Take the “18-week standard”. That’s a target Scotland’s NHS has to begin specialist treatment for 90 per cent of patients within 18 weeks of a GP referral.

The latest available data shows a slight increase in the proportion of people treated within that target time in December compared to the previous month (rising from 69 to 70 per cent).

At first glance, that could lend support to Mr Yousaf’s claim that NHS waiting times are improving. But on closer inspection, there are some serious limitations to this figure.

For starters, it’s only a single month of slight improvement. As Public Health Scotland (PHS) notes, when we look between quarters, the proportion of patients seen within the target time in the three months to December “is 3 per cent lower than [the] quarter ending September 2022”.

In other words, things are getting worse on a quarter-by-quarter basis – not better.

PHS adds that this “remains significantly lower than the 78.0 per cent reported during the quarter ending December 2019, prior to the beginning of the pandemic”.

It’s also well below the Scotland-wide target to treat 90 per cent of patients within this time.

And there’s another problem with this stat: it only tells us about the people who have already begun treatment. It says nothing about the people still waiting to be seen or to start treatment.

‘Upward trend’ in patients waiting to be seen

Scotland’s NHS has another key target: that patients should be seen by a specialist within 12 weeks of a GP referral.

As of 31 December (the latest available data) just over 480,000 patients in Scotland were waiting for this first appointment. PHS says this represents “a slight increase compared to the end of the previous quarter”.

It describes an “upward trend” in the waiting list since March 2020, noting that the latest figure is 88 per cent higher than when the pandemic began. That’s an extra 225,350 patients waiting to be seen.

More people waiting for hospital admission

And the number of patients waiting to be admitted to hospital for treatment is up too.

On the last day of 2022, the figure stood at 144,000. That’s “a slight increase of 2,208” since the previous quarter, PHS says.

And it points out that this is 22 per cent higher than at the end of 2021, and 87 per cent higher than in the months before Covid struck.

FactCheck verdict

Humza Yousaf claimed in parliament that NHS waiting times in Scotland are “improving”.

It looks like he’s referring to the number of people waiting more than two years for an appointment with a specialist or to start treatment. It’s possible to see improvement in these excessively long waits in the latest available data, depending on which dates you use to make the comparison.

But on other key metrics, Scotland’s NHS waiting lists are showing only very slight improvement or even getting worse.

The number of people still waiting to be seen by a specialist has risen in the latest data, and is 88 per cent higher than it was just before Covid hit. The number of people waiting to be admitted to hospital is up too.

A Scottish government spokesperson told FactCheck: “We must recognise the enormous impact the pandemic has had on our health service, with the pausing of all non-emergency treatment leading to planned care delays and an increase in waits. We will continue to reduce backlogs through regional and national working, protecting elective care and our National Treatment Centre programme.”