Nicola Sturgeon has been challenged over the impact of Covid on cancer care within the NHS – with Labour leader Anas Sarwar insisting the health service must not be made to “choose between treating a virus or treating cancer”.
Sarwar called on the First Minister to commit that cancer services will be protected in any redeployment of care sparked by coronavirus.
This, he said, means screening programmes must not be paused again in the same way as they were at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
The Scottish Labour leader also insisted that no cancer operations should be cancelled because of the pressures caused by Covid.
Almost 30,000 Scots have died from cancer since the start of the pandemic, he told MS Sturgeon.
He challenged her on the issue after figures this week showed the NHS is still failing to meet a key cancer waiting times target – with Sarwar saying this had not been achieved for “almost a decade”.
Data from Public Health Scotland showed, in the three months of July to September this year, 83.1% of patients referred with an urgent suspicion of cancer began treatment within the 62-day target time – below the 95% target set by the Scottish Government.
Sarwar, who raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions, told how one elderly patient who had previously had cancer had been waiting for months for an initial appointment.
The Labour leader hit out and said: “There are plenty of examples of people having to wait too long for treatment. Here’s just one. A 71-year-old man, who has previously had skin cancer, contacted his GP in the summer fearing it had returned.
“The GP confirmed this and referred him to a consultant. Months later he is still waiting for an appointment.”
He added this was important because “we know that the earlier you are diagnosed and the earlier you start treatment the higher your chance of survival”.
Sarwar continued: “Almost one in five of the most urgent cancer cases are not starting treatment on time, and between July and September – just three months – 677 patients waited longer than the Government’s own target.
“This is a problem that predates the pandemic. This Government has not met its cancer treatment target for almost a decade.”
With the NHS facing increasing pressure from rising coronavirus cases caused by the new Omicron variant, Mr Sarwar called on the First Minister to “commit that as part of any redeployment cancer services will be protected”.
He told Sturgeon: “That means no pause to screening programmes, genuine accelerations so we can catch up, and no cancelled cancer operations, because we can’t have an NHS that chooses between treating a virus or treating cancer.”
The First Minister told him cancer care had “rightly been prioritised throughout the pandemic and that will continue”.
But she conceded that did not mean the pandemic had had “no impact whatsoever”.
She accepted the 62-day treatment time target was not being met, adding: “I am not saying that is good enough, but more than 80%, 83% are seen within that 62-day target.”
She also said the Government would “continue to prioritise diagnosis and treatment”, taking “all appropriate steps” to achieve this.
Sturgeon told MSPs: “I dearly wish I could stand here and say that somewhere we can protect the NHS generally and cancer services in particular from all of the impact of this pandemic. I can’t do that, no matter how hard we work to try.
“The only thing that will protect the NHS from the pandemic is getting the pandemic under control and driving these cases down.”
She also told how the Government was investing in early diagnosis by establishing new centres for this to help ensure that “there is speedy, timeous treatment for cancer”.