Scotland’s NHS outperforms the rest of the UK – here’s why

Written by Sam MacKinnon

The past seven years of Conservative government has been one in which “the health service has endured the longest period of austerity in its 70-year history”. The most recent data from 2017 shows that Conservative governments since 2010 have introduced more severe austerity on health spending than any of their predecessors. In fact, health spending has seen its lowest increases since records began. The rate of increase in the number of doctors per 1,000 people has slowed dramatically and the number of nurses per 1,000 people has actually fallen since 2010.

So why Does Scotland outperform the rest of the UK?

Due to the way in which public spending is distributed across the UK, a budget is set for England and then that sets the budget for the devolved nations. Austerity from Westminster therefore reduces the available public spending to devolved governments. This negatively impacts on the public finances available for the Scottish Government.

However, Holyrood may have a set and limited budget but it doesn’t have to spend its budget in the same proportions as set for England by the Chancellor. The Scottish Government has therefore committed to providing the Scottish NHS with resources above the UK average, as well as providing additional services such as free prescriptions and eye tests. The data available for comparison demonstrates clearly that the Scottish NHS has been performing more effectively than any other UK national health service.

Firstly, let’s examine the differences in spending and resources across the different NHS organisations in the UK.

Healthcare spending in 2017/18 in Scotland was £2,368 per person, while in England it was £2,182, Wales £2,324, and in Northern Ireland £2,320. As a result of this additional spending per head Scotland has 76 GPs per 100,000 people, compared to a national UK average of 60.

Scotland also has more qualified nurses and midwives per 1,000 population than the UK, with 8.1 per 1,000 recorded in Scotland compared to 7.9 in the UK as a whole.

Scotland’s NHS also provides 4.2 hospital beds per 1,000 of the population, while the UK as a whole only has 2.6 beds per 1,000. This is one of the worst bed-to-population rates in the OECD, placing the UK 30th place out of 35. Were Scotland an independent OECD country in 2015, it would have taken 19th place out of 36 in terms of beds-to-population.

In isolation each of these figures – more GPs, more nurses, midwives and hospital resources – show why the Scottish NHS is more effective. When taken together, each area of increased spending lessens the pressure on the others. Moreover, while in numbers the Scottish NHS has greater numbers of critical resources, in practice figures suggest that these numbers have a more significant impact than elsewhere in the UK. For example, Scotland has the lowest level of A&E attendance, with 24,929 in Scotland per 100,000 of the population, versus 27,639 in England, 25,893 in Wales, and 34,820 in Northern Ireland. This indicates that Scotland’s NHS is better funded and resourced to serve the population in need of healthcare.

In practice, this joined-up thinking on funding has resulted in shorter waiting times for patients.

The percentage of patients seen within four hours at A&E in Scotland in 2017-18 was 91 per cent, while in England it was 82.4 per cent, Wales 77 per cent and Northern Ireland 68.7 per cent. The number of patients spending over 12 hours in A&E was 0.2 per cent in Scotland, 2 per cent in England, 4.8 per cent in Wales, and 2.6 per cent in Northern Ireland.


The evidence available for comparison suggests that the Scottish Government’s approach to health service management – having a greater ratio of healthcare spending and resources to demand and overall population, as well as providing better GP access to lesson the pressure on hospitals – has made the Scottish health service more effective than that of the rest of the UK.

This has spared Scotland of a health crisis of the severity seen across the rest of the UK. But because of Scotland’s limited finances due to the impact of austerity on its devolved government, and a severely limited ability to control national economic policy, it is still constrained when it comes to protecting health services. So long as austerity guides the decision-making of the UK, Scotland’s health service will continue to be pressured. Independence, therefore, offers the Scottish Government the tools and flexibility to prioritise addressing health care issues and improving health and wellbeing in Scotland.

About the author

Sam MacKinnon


  • I would agree with the comment that Scotland performs a little better than England (generally)
    But, with the conservatives running the NHS towards private health,
    Maybe Scotland’s rise is more of an English demise !!

  • Really like this very relevant information .
    Scotland’s Health Service has been blighted by the
    Controls on budgets imposed on us by Westminster . Their interference in our rights to run our Country Independently has for far too long diminished the resilience and fortitude of those who work in our NHS . Privatisation at the expense of the people who live and work in Scotland should be reversed . The NHS has existed for as long as I have lived . I will be 69 in September . I have worked as a Nurse in The NHS since the 70 s . Also I have worked as an Industrial Nurse and in Schools as a Nurse / Educational Assistant . I have experienced lots of changes .
    It is time the NHS was handed back to the people who work in it . Matrons should be returned and
    Professionals should make the decisions about
    how the NHS is run , not Politicians or Richard Branson or whoever Boris does a deal with , line Trump .
    Nursing is a Vocation . It’s time it was recognised and valued . Nurses and doctors and all those who work in the NHS should receive recognition in the form of proper pay rises and grants for Student Nurses . Funding for Research and better resources should be an expectation . We pay our taxes . This is what we pay for .Free at clinical need regardless of income or status .

  • I totally support the NHS in Scotland, and Business for Scotland’s excellent work. This is just an observation.
    Historically, there have *always* been more patients per GP in England than Scotland. I became a GP in 1983, and was aware of the difference back then. I’m not sure if one can actually claim that the current numbers are due to the extra funding from the Scottish Government, though I’m sure it helps to maintain this balance.
    I could never understand how English GPs could provide a decent service to their patients when they had so many; however, they went home with substantially more money.

  • It’s hard to reconcile this assessment with experience on the ground in the far north. Our hospital has been downgraded. Few babies are born here – pregnant and labouring Mums have to travel 100 miles to give birth.
    Most consultant appointments are 100 miles away. The number of hospital beds has reduced over the last ten years.
    There is a problem retaining GPs and shortages of other staff.
    Local medical equipment has been removed to Raigmore 100 miles away.
    Centralisation as a policy won’t be cured by more money or independence.

  • Looking at NI demonstrates that funding and performance have very little correlation.
    Rather than putting £850m or so into manipulating waiting lists, which shores up the Private sector, there should be more sensible investment in local service provision.
    Scotland has always been better funded than England.
    For anyone interested, check out Synaptek and Medinet.

    • Scotland had 20% more per capita in 1947.

      The post-cholera sapiental authority of the MoH, HIMS and the impact of community midwives on 1920’s neonatal and maternity death rates and Christian charity (Matthew 25) were the cause.

  • It all looks fine and dandy on paper, but you just have to go into any hospital and you can see the problems of under staffing and resources in just about every department across Scotland. We may well be doing better than the rest of the UK, but every NHS department is still struggling to staff and make ends meet great time.
    One problem with staff shortages is the cost of getting in agency staffing to cover. Its only if absolutely pushed that this happens and the rest of the time wards and departments run to with an absolute minimum of staff so patients are at risk 24/7. Ask any floor staffing member of the NHS and you will get a truer picture of the day to day staff running and its not good. Saving money is all that the ‘heid yins’ want as budgets are cut, cut and cut again and staff are not replaced as they should be. Staff do what they can with the resources provided but its rarely ever enough to provide all that is required. Sorry to burst your bubble, but a paper trail of statistics just doesn’t tell the full truth.

    • Scottish expenditure is decided by the UK chancellor, cuts to Scotlands budget overall are therefor not the Scottish Government’s choice. The Scottish Government achieves better results overall (despite an ageing demographic versus the rest of the UK) by spending more of its allotted budget on health than the rest of the UK. If you want more spent on the NHS in Scotland then how does voting to allow Conservative Chancellors and austerity to set the Scottish block grant help?

    • Start training the young people leaving school the way they did years ago. Today’s nurses may be book smart but commonsense you are born with. A nurse is born with compassion , empathy and love of people a degree on these essentials we need .

    • I know Scottish staff are pushed to the limit and we’re nothing on the Scandi countries but here in Scotland facilities and wait times are so much better than eg the south of England, where my mother can’t even get an appointment for months ahead. A&E down there is an all-night wait, even getting a blood test takes all day. My family’s had great experience on the whole with the Scottish NHS and I’m massively buoyed by this article: Scotland’s on the right track. We just need to get our head down and keep going.

  • Reading this article and thought this might be of interest.
    For the next two weeks Yes Blairgowrie and Rattray are hosting a NHS feature window at our Blether In hub.
    Whilst researching the topic I carried out a check on nursing provision in Scotland measured against a World Health Organisation. Using primary source data from ScotGov and NHS Information Services Divison, and using the same WHO rules of measurement, Scotland would have ranked 9th in the world’s top 20 countries.

    Unfortunately it looks like I can’t paste the relevant infographic into this comment but would be happy to share whatever info that may be of interest.

    Iain Jack

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