SARWAR: Cancer brings anxiety and misery to thousands waiting for treatment

Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Humza Yousaf clashed over cancer treatment times  — the 62-day treatment standard has not been met in over a decade.

By Bill Heaney

Cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer, and it brings anxiety and misery to thousands of people across the country every year, Labour leader Anas Sarwar told the Holyrood parliament this week.

He told MSPs: “Identifying and treating cancer quickly saves lives. However, the 62-day treatment standard has not been met in over a decade. Today’s 10-year strategy has given no indication of when it will be met, and the action plan does not mention it at all. When does the Government expect to meet the 62-day cancer treatment standard?

The First Minister, Humza Yousaf, told him: “The worst challenge—it was there even pre-pandemic—is, as Anas Sarwar is right to say, in relation to the 62-day target. We had been achieving the 31-day target with consistency, but there are challenges because of the shock of the pandemic, which has of course further exacerbated the challenge with both the 31-day and the 62-day targets. In relation to the actions that we are taking, the cancer strategy is an important plan, which we know that many stakeholders have welcomed.

“Anas Sarwar will understand the scale of the challenge that we are facing. Arguably, the most difficult decision that the Government had to take during the course of the pandemic was to pause cancer screening for a number of months. We are working through that backlog. As Anas Sarwar was right to say, we are not meeting the 62-day target. Challenges still remain and, although we are close to the 31-day target, we are not quite meeting it.

“We have seen more patients in the past quarter than in the previous one, and we are seeing more people through both the 31-day and the 62-day pathways. We are taking a range of actions, because cancer treatment and the recovery of those waiting times and of the national health service are of the highest priority to the Government.”

Anas Sarwar accused the First Minister of not answering the question about when the Government expects to meet the 62-day target. 

“Delay and disruption”—this is life and death for people across the country. There is a shortage of oncologists across Scotland when cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer. After 16 years of Scottish National Party Government, why is there no oncologist available anywhere in Scotland?”

The First Minister told him: “There is a global shortage of oncologists and we have been working over the past 16 years to increase the numbers of oncologists in Scotland. Since 2007, there has been an almost 100 per cent increase in consultant oncologists, from 69.5 whole-term equivalents in September 2006 to 137.2 whole-term equivalents in the most recent statistics, which are from December 2022.

We have increased numbers of consultant radiologists by 60 per cent as well and we have a higher number of consultant radiologists per head in Scotland than there are in other parts of the United Kingdom.

“That is why I, in my role as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, set up a task force to look at what more we need to do to attract oncologists to our hospitals and cancer services.”

Anas Sarwar replied: “It should not take bringing individual cases to Parliament for people to get life-saving cancer treatment across the country. There is a shortage of oncologists across Scotland, and we have been raising the issue of the NHS workforce crisis for years.

“The strategy that the First Minister published today states that the workforce review will not conclude until 2026. People with cancer cannot afford to wait.

“The crisis is now—the 31-day standard is repeatedly missed, the 62-day standard has not been met in more than a decade and staff shortages are putting people’s lives at risk. The SNP has been in government for 16 years and, today, it has published a 10-year plan.

“Why does Humza Yousaf think that people across Scotland have to wait 26 years to get adequate cancer care?”

The First Minister said: “More than nine out of 10 people are being seen within the 31-day target. The median waiting time for treatment remains at five days for that pathway. I do not believe that people should have to wait longer.

“We are treating more than 35 per cent more people on the 62-day pathway than was the case 10 years ago, for example. We are seeing more and more people through these pathways, and we are doing—I am doing—everything that we can to improve the performance on both the 31-day and 62-day pathways.

“We are looking at how we can redesign our cancer services and what more we can do to add capacity.

“For example, we have mobile MRI and CT scanners, which provide additional capacity, often in hard-to-reach remote, rural and island communities. The Government and I are entirely focused on the NHS recovery, and of the highest priority is the recovery of our cancer services.”

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