On 20 January 2022, NHS Tayside announced that, due to a staffing gap that will arise at the end of January, a mutual aid agreement has been agreed between NHS Tayside and three other health boards. The agreement outlines that some patients living in Tayside and receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer will be required to travel for their treatment to their nearest cancer centre in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen. All other radiotherapy services in Dundee cancer centre will carry on locally. Meanwhile, recruitment for any vacant posts within the service is on-going.
I can inform Parliament and the cabinet secretary that, over recent days, two further consultant oncologists have resigned. That will leave NHS Tayside with no breast cancer oncology specialists and serious shortfalls in oncology consultant cover in relation to other tumours.
Putting aside the incompetence of the Government and health quangos that got us here, I implore the cabinet secretary, on behalf of the women of Dundee and Tayside, at long last to treat the situation as the crisis that it is. Will he immediately intervene to guarantee the full recovery of breast cancer services in Dundee?
I will not rise to the political attack. It is important to engage with the issue in a non-partisan way and to put the women and patients who are affected very much at the heart of the situation. Michael Marra asks me to intervene, but I can give an absolute assurance that I and other ministerial colleagues have been deeply involved in the issue. There is no question of NHS Tayside not taking action; it has been taking action.
I will give some examples.
Last year, NHS Tayside undertook three rounds of recruitment, with one successful applicant. It has been in regular contact with all United Kingdom agencies—more than 120 in total—in relation to both contracted and non-contracted posts. Medical directors have been in contact with several of the larger cancer centres in England, which report similar challenges.
We will, of course, work closely with NHS Tayside. It is in a deeply regrettable situation. We will do everything that we can to ensure that NHS Tayside’s breast cancer service is staffed in the best possible way. However, the shortage of medical oncologists, particularly for breast cancer, is not unique to NHS Tayside. It is felt acutely there, but the issue is wider than that. I am happy to meet members about the issue. It will take a collective effort by the Government and the health board to ensure that a full service resumes in NHS Tayside.
NHS Tayside’s inability to recruit replacement breast cancer therapists and clinicians is putting a huge strain on individuals, especially when they have early stage breast cancer. The cabinet secretary identified that people are going to cancer centres in Glasgow, Aberdeen and even Forth Valley, all of which also have staffing issues. What additional measures can be put in place to ensure that the disruption to those patients is kept to a minimum?
Alexander Stewart is right in saying that the focus is on trying to ensure that the disruption is kept to a minimum. NHS Tayside has made it clear that, when there is a need for patients to travel and be accommodated, it will seek to make sure that those costs are covered.
We are working intensively with the board to support all further solutions. That includes international recruitment; regional roles that support several centres—involving, for example, NHS Lothian and NHS Tayside; a re-examination of locum capacity, including dealing with international locum agencies; role redesign, including research opportunities with Dundee medical school; and exploring an enhanced marketing campaign for NHS Tayside to attract more oncologists, and breast cancer oncologists in particular.
Although we are rightly and understandably focusing on NHS Tayside, the issue is felt not only by other health boards in Scotland but by other health boards and national health service trusts in England and other parts of the UK. We will do everything that we can to ensure that breast cancer services across Scotland are fully staffed.