Scottish Labour will prioritise cancer services to offer “world-class” care rather than focusing on a divisive independence referendum, Anas Sarwar has said.
Cancer returned to being the leading cause of death last month, according to National Records of Scotland figures, overtaking Covid-19 for the first time since October.
The Scottish Labour leader has repeatedly warned that up to 7000 people in Scotland may have cancer but be unaware of it because of a diagnosis backlog caused when services were suspended earlier in the pandemic.
By the end of 2020, 100,913 patients were waiting for key diagnostic tests and 44.1% of them had already waited longer than the six-week target.
Sarwar has accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of under-funding the NHS and said the “distracted” SNP leader had “taken her eye off the ball” on cancer services.
Speaking ahead of a visit to a cancer centre in Aberdeen, he said: “At this election, building a world-class cancer care system is on the ballot.
“But to do that we must be focused on our national recovery.
“Right now there are thousands of people in Scotland who have cancer, but don’t know about it.
“We came into this pandemic with an under-funded NHS. The Tories would rather take us back to constitutional arguments, while the SNP’s poor track record on cancer goes unchallenged.
“A distracted government and an incompetent opposition has meant when it comes to cancer care, Nicola Sturgeon has taken her eye off the ball.
“That’s why cancer care is at the heart of Scottish Labour’s NHS recovery plan.”
Scottish Labour’s manifesto sets out a catch-up initiative across cancer screening programmes, increasing staff and processing capacity to clear the backlog of appointments before the end of next year.
It also calls for rapid diagnostic centres to be established in every health board area so GPs can refer patients who have suspicious but unclear symptoms for a diagnosis within two weeks.
Patients should also have a single point of contact to guide them through their cancer treatment and provide personalised support, the party says.
Sarwar added: “I want to see our NHS not only restored to pre-pandemic levels, but see it strengthened and our workforce reinvigorated.
“The SNP cannot be relied on to prioritise recovery because it has already made clear that it will prioritise a referendum.
“If you too want real solutions for our NHS – and not a return to the old arguments – then you need to vote for it on May 6.
“To back a stronger NHS and a fairer Scotland, make sure you use your second vote on the peach ballot paper for Scottish Labour.”