Minister who has let down patients must go

One in two of us will get cancer. It doesn’t bear thinking about but we cannot avoid it because it is a fact happening all around us — happening to us. 

We have another reminder of this grim reality in the revelation that two-thirds are waiting longer than they should for bowel cancer tests.

According to the Scottish Government’s target, patients should wait no more than six weeks and it is only permissible for this to happen in five per cent of cases. In fact, 66 per cent wait longer. Bowel Cancer UK says this amounts to 5,000 people failed.

No matter how prevalent it is, cancer still has the power to shock and frighten us. For some it is a death sentence, for others confinement to a succession of sterile consultation rooms where doctors try to soften hard medicine with sympathetic smiles.

Is this the appointment where they give you the all-clear, or the dreaded moment when the consultant looks up from his clipboard with kindly, telling eyes?

Those living with cancer or waiting to hear if that bitter, jagged-tasting word will be on their lips for months or years to come go through a double torment. The malignancy invades their body but it also preys on their mind.

There is the fear of knowing and the anxiety of not knowing. The sleepless nights worrying how your spouse will cope without you… who would look after the children if it’s bad news.

Amidst this trauma, the one thing we rely on is first-rate medical care. After all, we’ve paid for it and we elect governments to keep the health service ticking over. That this is not the case, as the bowel cancer statistics highlight, only adds to the stress of falling ill.

Those figures came on the same day we learned that one in four patients is not treated within the legally-assured timeframe. The Treatment Time Guarantee, introduced by the SNP in 2012, says patients must start inpatient treatment within 12 weeks of diagnosis. Only 75.9 per cent did in the past three months — the worst performance since the target was put in place.

There will be no sanction against the Scottish Government for breaking this standard. It is ‘legally binding’ in the same sense that fracking is ‘banned’ and teachers are ‘enthusing’ about education reforms. When it comes to promises, the SNP’s legerdemain is legendary.

We also found out yesterday that one in four outpatients waits longer than 12 weeks for an appointment and one in five longer than six weeks for tests. Just 81 per cent wait less than 18 weeks between referral and treatment. The target is 90 per cent.

Yesterday was a day of shame for Scotland’s NHS, for the bureaucrats paid handsomely to oversee it and for a Scottish Government entering its 12th year in power still incapable of running the most important public service. Thousands of patients are being let down and no one is coming forward to own up, apologise and promise to make things better.

Yesterday was a day of shame for Health Secretary Shona Robison and her personal friend and patron Nicola Sturgeon — a day of shame insofar as either is capable of feeling shame.

Let’s dispense with the sentiment. We all respect and admire the hard work and dedication of clinicians. Let’s forgo the competitive hagiography. The NHS is a healthcare system, not a spiritual movement, and it is only as good as the results it produces. We all love the NHS; some of us just happen to think it involves more than wearing badges and posing for pictures with smiling, bleary-eyed nurses.

The SNP has donned the cloak of Florence Nightingale and offered itself as the guardian of the NHS. Pledging to reverse ward closures helped put them in power in the first place. But when it comes to living up to their fine words, the SNP have only excuses, accusations and deflections.

Bad weather is to blame for waiting times. Critics are ‘talking down our NHS’. And, the First Minster’s personal favourite, you’d be much worse off in England, as if referrals in Rochester mean all that much to someone waiting for a biopsy in Barrhead.

During the 2017 election, the SNP hubristically announced it would break its self-denying ordinance and vote to save the NHS in England from the wicked Tories. If only English MPs could vote to give us a government that spends more time fixing our hospitals than grandstanding about our neighbours’.

No government minister can banish cancer with the wave of a magic wand. The cure is coming, slowly, and one day, someone in a crisp white coat, in a stark white room, will look up from a microscope and feel their heart skip a beat. Until then, it is the job of government to ensure patients get the best care possible — for cancer and other conditions.

It is a difficult job but not an impossible one. It is a job that can be done properly given sufficient resources, sound management and strong leadership. It is a job Shona Robison is simply not up to.

Nicola Sturgeon gave her the role when she became First Minister. She has kept her in post over three-and-a-half long, lean years, enduring on her own back stripes meant for her friend. Would that we all had such faithful chums.

Of course, a more cynical mind might wonder if the First Minister is motivated less by personal loyalty than by personal interest. Every day Shona Robison remains at health places more distance between the chronically troubled portfolio and the longest-serving health secretary since devolution — Nicola Sturgeon.

Whatever her motive, the First Minister must know this situation is untenable. The Health Secretary is failing patients, clinicians and the health service. In allowing her to continue doing so, the First Minister is failing the whole country. The longer she protects her best mate, the more patients will suffer and the further standards will fall.

Cancer patients — all patients — deserve better than that. They deserve a First Minister who can set aside her personal biases and show a bit of leadership. They’ve been waiting long enough.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government (cc-by-nc/2.0).

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