7. To ask the First Minister what urgent action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that everyone who is eligible for any cancer testing and screening programme is receiving their invitation on time, in light of recent reports that 13,000 women who were mistakenly removed from the national database are being offered an appointment for a cervical smear. (S6F-02017)
I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising what is an incredibly important issue. The national audit of the cervical screening programme is under way. It is a result of an incident that was brought to our attention in 2021 where a small number of women were incorrectly excluded from the cervical screening programme after having subtotal hysterectomies.
This final stage of the audit is precautionary. It follows an initial audit in 2021 of those women who were considered to be at the highest risk of being wrongly excluded. No cervical cancers were detected as part of that audit and the risk to participants in this audit is very low. The actual number of patients who need to be reinstated to the screening programme will obviously not be known until the audit is complete and all affected individuals are contacted.
Funding has been made available, particularly to GP practices to ensure that they can absorb any increase in demand.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. I recognise the complexity of the case. We are talking about a statistically small number of people, but each of them will, no doubt, be concerned when they receive a letter. Can the First Minister assure those with concerns that measures are in place to ensure that similar errors are not repeated and that all those who are affected will be contacted as swiftly as possible? Will he indicate what work is under way to improve access to screening, including the introduction of self-sampling, to ensure that this news does not further impact uptake?
Beatrice Wishart is absolutely right. Although the numbers may be small, when someone receives the letter, I can imagine the impact, the concern and the worry that they will have. That is why I was very keen to reiterate that the women who were called in the first audit were the ones who were most at risk. If someone receives a letter or is asked to come back in for screening, there is low risk but, of course, there is still risk, and that will be a concern for those who receive the call-up as part of the audit.
Beatrice Wishart is also right to ask what we have done to ensure that the error does not occur again. It is an error that has occurred, I am afraid, in the system for many, many years. We have made improvements to the information technology systems in relation to the cervical cancer screening programme. We have also improved the record-keeping process, and 14 territorial boards have taken action in relation to their audit activities.
We expect the audit to be fully completed in the next 12 months. I note again that we have started with those at the highest risk.
In relation to cervical cancer, Beatrice Wishart mentioned some of the initiatives that we are taking forward, but we are also seeking to do more in relation to mobile screening units, which we know are particularly important in rural, remote and island communities. Beatrice Wishart raises a very important point indeed around the fact that we need to make sure that screening for all cancers—cervical cancers, of course, included—is as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.