A GOOD, positive news headline about the health service would surely be welcomed widely as a breath of fortifying fresh air. Only those determined to treat the service as a political football would cavil at such a sentiment. Alas, such stories are rare, which is hardly surprising, given greater human longevity, spiralling budget demands and an economy that never has much to spare.

It’s pretty much the same story across the western world. Scotland has run its own health service for some time now, and news yesterday about accident and emergency times missing the Scottish Government’s target, while to some extent par for the course, at least came with exigencies such as a massive increase in flu cases and, before that, falls on the ice. No one can legislate for these and, while questions are rightly raised about performance, most people would extend a degree of understanding to the situation.

The situation with regard to single-crewed ambulances is harder to understand and less obviously susceptible to a generous response. It is nearly 10 years since the SNP promised to do away with the practice, other than in “exceptional circumstances”. The then Health Secretary, one Nicola Sturgeon, was quite vehement on the subject, declaring: “I have made it clear to the Scottish Ambulance Service that it must take action to eliminate rostered single-manning.”

It’s always a good idea to mark the qualifications in politicians’ statements and, in this instance, “rostered” possibly covers a modicum of sins. The Scottish Ambulance Service itself has said that it does not routinely roster staff to be on their own in double-crew vehicles but that “exceptional circumstances” such as short notice and staff absence disrupt the best-laid rosters.

The Tories have taken issue with the definition of “exceptional”. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by the party found that single crews have been dispatched 10,029 times in four years. Despite a peak in 2015-16, the figures are fairly consistent over the years, suggesting a systemic problem in which the main exigency that can be inferred is staff sickness which, last year, ran at 7.6 per cent. It would be purely speculative to suggest that issues such as single-crewed ambulances bring pressures which cause stress which lead to absence which leads to single-crewed ambulances, creating an unhappy cycle of dysfunction. At any rate, a starting point for remedying this situation might be to find out why there is so much staff sickness.

Shona Robison, the current Health Secretary, responded to the Tories’ FoI figures by producing an impressive array of stats of her own: paramedic numbers up 13.9 per cent in 10 years; a commitment to train an additional 1,000 paramedics over the next four years; £900 million invested in the ambulance service in the last four years. Her case was that instances of single-crewing were a small proportion of the total number of shifts. However, her political opponents maintain that 10,000 in four years is unacceptably high and that the figure belies the 10-year-old promise to eliminate rostered single-crewing. The Tories, ever concerned for the workers, have called on the Scottish Government to set out a “clear plan” to help out hard-working ambulance staff.

All politicking aside, this seems like a reasonable demand in itself, and might even give the Scottish Government an opportunity to explain in greater detail how it defines exceptional circumstances and small proportions. We’re all – nearly all – willing to listen.

When, nearly 10 years ago, we heard Ms Sturgeon talk about taking action to “eliminate” single-crewing, it all seemed part of an impressive approach that would take her on to lead the country. Alas, strong leadership isn’t saying what you’re going to do. It’s saying that you’ve done it.