JOHN Swinney has defended the use of private firms in the Scottish NHS – despite attacking Labour with claims their rivals would privatise the health service.

The SNP leader said it was a “question of scale” between the number of firms used by the NHS in Scotland versus England.

He claimed the use of private companies in the NHS in England was around 10 times that used north of the Border.

It comes after the Mail on Sunday reported the state had spent £850 million contracting private companies for staff to help ease pressure on the Scottish NHS.

He told The Scottish Sun: “In some cases, what gets defined as private sector activity in Scotland will be the use of agency staff, for example, who are filling vacancies.

“Now obviously, I want to make sure that we’ve got staff on NHS employment participating and we’ve got vacancies in the health service, so we’re keen to fill those vacancies, we’d rather have those vacancies filled than be using the agency contractors, for example.

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“But that’s part of the kind of pragmatic steps to resolve staff shortages, it’s not about privatising the health service.”

Swinney added: “There’s questions of scale, for example. From data that I’ve seen, the health service in England is using the private sector on routine stuff to an extent which is about 10 times the level in Scotland, so there’s that question of scale.

“But, secondly there’s the agenda. You won’t get me arguing for greater involvement of the private sector in the NHS, [Labour’s shadow health secretary] Wes Streeting is arguing for that and he’s proposing that, and that’s the difference.”

The First Minister also took the opportunity to blast Streeting, who has previously spoken of his plans to use the private sector to help the NHS cut waiting times.

He added: “Wes Streeting has said that he’ll hold the door open to the private sector and he’ll hold it open much wider than Tony Blair did.

“If you look at just now, the private sector occupies about 10 per cent of the health service in England, it represents less than one per cent of the health service in Scotland.

“I am concerned that Labour are on course, if he’s going to do it more than [Tony] Blair, he’s going to expand all of that and that will ultimately have an effect on the funding that’s available for the NHS in Scotland, and that is a significant worry.”