Has Sam Galbraith's personal winter crisis damaged his chances of becoming Scotland's first health minister? Colin Wright reports; 'For a man who was presented as a 'safe pair of hands', he has begun to look a little clumsy'

When is a crisis not a crisis? When Scotland's busiest casualty department is branded 'a war zone', the Royal College of Nursing is warning of severe recruitment problems in nursing, and your political allies want your head on a plate.

Those were just some of the pressures building up on Scottish health minister Sam Galbraith last week. But the former surgeon is adamant that, no matter what problems England may have, there is no crisis in the NHS in Scotland.

Mr Galbraith's new year has not got off to a very good start.

There are more trials to come, with pay awards looming, influenza yet to hit Scotland and a potentially difficult period leading up to the Scottish elections in May.

For a politician who was presented as a 'safe pair of hands', the professionals' friend and the patients' ally, he has begun to look a little clumsy.

There were hints of problems last year when prime minister Tony Blair's announcement about the 'supernurse' left the Scottish Office wrong-footed and without a view on the subject. Recent events have now revealed distinct cracks in the facade.

After the 'war zone' outburst by Brian Potter of the British Medical Association and the RCN's vociferous response to a leaked letter from Mr Galbraith to Labour MPs telling them there was no nursing recruitment crisis in Scotland, the minister decided to say that both professional bodies were simply wrong.

As the Scottish National Party's health spokeswoman, Kay Ullrich, says: 'The BMA and the RCN are not people to ignore. Neither would make irresponsible claims, yet both were rubbished by Mr Galbraith. His position is untenable. He should go now.'

The SNP would say that. But there is also criticism closer to home - Labour MP Dennis Canavan calls Mr Galbraith's attitude 'complacent'.

'There is an unacceptable degree of complacency in this letter,' says Mr Canavan. 'There is a shortage of nurses and a crisis in some Scottish hospitals.'

He adds: 'I don't think Galbraith is up to the job. He has been living on his past reputation for years.'

Only last week the Scot Nursing agency in Glasgow said it had been unable to fill 100 vacancies due to a shortage of nurses, a situation that had not occurred before.

But according to a Scottish Office spokeswoman there is still no recruitment crisis. This does not assuage those critics who wonder why the government attempted to change the subject of Monday's meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee from health to agriculture. This heavy-handed attempt to shift attention away from health was derided by the other parties who rejected the proposal outright.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary general meeting of the NHS in Scotland's human resource partnership forum was arranged for last Friday. The Scottish Office was keen to have a meeting before the Scottish Grand Committee debate to reduce the risk of further embarrassment.

The forum met after private meetings with each of the individual professional bodies at which some form of appeasement seems to have been brokered. June Andrews, Scottish secretary of the RCN, says of the forum:

'There is still more that the Scottish Office could be doing to implement the human resource planning forum, and I told Mr Galbraith there would be a serious problem for the government if nurses' pay was staged this year.'

Mr Galbraith has weathered his own winter crisis this year. But it may be that he no longer has an unshakeable claim to the job of health minister in the new Scottish Parliament.

As one senior health union official says: 'Perhaps Sam is just not as subtle a politician as we all thought he was.'