National Health Service (Waiting Times)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th October 2022.

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Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

2. The Scottish Government’s failure to get to grips with NHS waiting times is costing lives. In February, my colleague Foysol Choudhury raised the case of Anne Sinclair, who was waiting for cancer treatment. Anne, a previous cancer survivor, waited seven months for her diagnosis, at which point she was told that she had an aggressive form of cancer. She was then forced to wait more than five months for treatment.

We know that the sooner someone is diagnosed and the sooner they start treatment, the more likely they are to survive. Anne tragically died this summer. Her last words to her son Ricky were:

“Keep fighting; tell my story; we need to stop this happening to anyone else. I love you.”

In February, the First Minister said that Anne’s case was “unacceptable”, a word that she has used at least six times already this afternoon. If it is unacceptable, why is it still happening to others?

The First Minister:

First, I convey my sincere condolences to Anne’s loved ones—her family and her friends. I do not know all the circumstances of her situation but I know what was narrated to me in the chamber previously.

Individual experiences in which the treatment or care in the NHS is not what all of us expect are unacceptable. I will never stop saying that.

That does not change the fact that, for the overwhelming majority of people in this country, the NHS delivers an outstanding service. Cancer is and always should be a clinical priority. We have two key waiting time standards on the NHS for cancer care: the 31-day target for the period from decision to treat to first treatment, and the 62-day target. More people are now being seen on those urgent pathways than was previously the case, and we continue to invest in cancer services and the early diagnosis of cancer. Those issues are a priority.

I do not and will never shy away from the serious challenges and pressures on our national health service. That is why it is so incumbent on Government to support the NHS with the investment and the other forms of support that it needs, and we will always do that, for the sake of patients like Anne and, of course, the many other patients who depend on the NHS each and every day.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

Anne’s case is not an isolated or individual case. Here is another. A 56-year-old man in West Dunbartonshire first went to his doctor with back pain in autumn 2020. He was prescribed painkillers and told to visit a physio. Six months later, he was passing blood and being violently sick. He called an ambulance but was told twice that one would not attend because his condition was not life threatening, so he got himself to accident and emergency and eventually had a CT scan, which showed a large tumour that had spread to his spine. He died a year after first seeking help from the NHS. That demonstrates a systemic failure and what happens when services and staff are pushed to breaking point.

Does the First Minister accept that her failure to get to grips with the NHS crisis is costing lives?

The First Minister:

I take my responsibility to the NHS seriously every single day. The pressures on our NHS are well known. That is why the support that we are giving to our NHS is so important. That is the case across all conditions and all specialties in our NHS, but it is perhaps even more particularly the case when it comes to cancer care.

I mentioned the two targets. I explain to people that the 31-day target relates to the period from a decision being taken to treat to the first treatment happening. More than 95 per cent of patients are seen within that target period. The 62-day target, which relates to the whole referral to treatment period, is much more challenging. However, almost eight out of 10 patients are seen within that target period, and more people are being seen through that urgent pathway than has ever been the case.

The reason I have spent time talking about that is that it is important for people to understand that, for the vast majority, our NHS—on cancer care and on everything else—delivers an outstanding service of clinical care. It is clear that that is not the case for everyone, especially now, given the pressures that are faced. That is why the responsibility that I, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and the whole Government have to make sure that we support the NHS is such a vital one and one that we take so incredibly seriously.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

A failure to get to grips with the NHS crisis is costing lives. Let us look at the facts. In the past year, 3,393 people waited for longer than the 62-day target period for urgent cancer treatment, which is a standard that has not been met in 10 years and the performance on which is getting worse. That means lives lost.

We have the worst A and E waiting times on record. In one month alone, 13,000 patients waited for more than eight hours. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that that means lives lost.

This is a systemic failure on the Scottish National Party’s watch. Staff are being failed, patients are being let down and lives are being lost. How many more families have to suffer? How many more tragic stories do we have to bring to this Parliament before Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf do their jobs?

The First Minister:

On the 62-day cancer target, if we look at the most recent quarter, we see that more patients were treated on that 62-day pathway than was the case before the pandemic. In the most recent year for which we have full-year figures, more people were treated on that 62-day pathway than, I think, was the case in any year since 2011.

Our national health service, because of investment and staff recruitment, is doing more in many senses than it was before. Demand is also increasing, which is why we have to continue to increase that support.

Whether in cancer care, accident and emergency or the Ambulance Service response times that we have just been talking about, there are very significant challenges. Those challenges are often experienced by patients and are felt every day by staff who work on the front line of our national health service.

This Government is committed to supporting our national health service. There has never been a more difficult time to do so, but there has also never been a more important time to do so, which is why we continue to take that responsibility so seriously.

The Presiding Officer:

We move to constituency and general supplementary questions.