First minister's questions: Health of a national treasure

The National Health Service has long since attained a position of sanctity in our public discourse. Politically, it is inviolable.

Any politician offering even the mildest criticism of our hospitals will, without exception, preface such remarks with a panegyric of praise for NHS staff.

Said politician will then look round, challenging anyone - who might be rash enough to dissent - to step forward. None will.

This saintly status is not accorded to any other profession.

Politicians will occasionally praise the diligence and commitment of teachers. But they don't really mean it, they don't feel it in their heart.

Perhaps that is because they know the voters associate the NHS with life saving - while their collective memory of school is double maths, cold toilets and, for those of a certain vintage, the belt.

So sanctity is confined to the health sector. The snag is that the national treasure which is the NHS consumes rather a lot of our national treasure.

Which makes it politically contentious, although still untouchable in broader terms.

In Holyrood today, the first minister summoned up the sanctity of the NHS fairly frequently.

Under pressure, first from Labour and then from the Liberal Democrats, he repeatedly challenged his opponents to express their pride in the health service, its concept and creed.

To be fair, there was much more to the FM's approach than a simple appeal to patient patriotism. Indeed, he was in a notably combative mood when challenged by Labour's Johann Lamont about hospital waiting times.

Ms Lamont was referring to a report by Audit Scotland which tracked relatively extensive past use of "social unavailability" codes to exclude patients from waiting time guarantees.

The report noted that it was not possible to say whether these figures involved deliberate manipulation by hard-pressed health boards in order to meet tighter targets. That was because of limits in the information available.

In essence, ministers say that amounts to "not guilty" - while noting two further points: that these are past issues, since subject to remedy, and that IT systems are being radically improved to upgrade information.

'Bragging ministers'

In essence, opposition leaders say the verdict is "not proven", at best. They argue the temptation to manipulate will have been substantial.

Mr Salmond's rebuttal was fierce.

He argued there had been "hidden" waiting lists under the Labour/Lib Dem administration, that these had been abolished - and that his government was making real strides towards improvement.

He detected a further agenda. Labour's attacks have been focused upon the previous health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon.

Labour say that is because the contention covers events which occurred on her watch. Mr Salmond said they were out to "get her" because she was now in ministerial charge of the constitutional question.

For the Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie accused ministers of "bragging" about their achievements to the media - while the reality was rather different. Mr Salmond demurred, vigorously.

Tough questions, robust answers. A vital issue explored and examined. In terms of political scrutiny, job done. For now.