Deputy First Minister John Swinney has been accused of “burying his head in sand” and putting his own constituents at risk after he rebuffed questions about NHS Tayside’s crisis-hit breast cancer service.
The Perthshire North MSP, who was filling in for Nicola Sturgeon at first minister’s questions, faced shouts of “disgrace” as he attempted to sidestep a challenge from Labour’s Michael Marra over the future of the ailing department.
We revealed on Thursday how the “decimation” of breast cancer services in Tayside in the wake of a chemotherapy dosing scandal will leave the region with a single consultant when another senior doctor retires in January at 57-years-old.
The departure of Dr Douglas Adamson will mean every single member of the oncology team who accused bosses of throwing them “under the bus” over the dosing revelations has since quit the health board.
Concerns over future of services
NHS Tayside has struggled to recruit replacements and, in February, chief executive Grant Archibald told Holyrood’s public audit committee he is unable to make long-term promises about the future of local services in the region.
He was later forced to make a plea to other health boards for assistance as part of a “remobilisation” plan to keep services running.
Bosses are currently recruiting for a locum consultant to be brought in on a 12-month temporary contract.
Speaking at first minister’s questions, Mr Marra said the first minister had promised at the time of Mr Archibald’s remarks to take action.
But he said the latest departure will leave the service “on the brink of collapse and in urgent need of external support”.
“This has been a catastrophic failure of leadership by the board and the SNP Government,” Mr Marra said.
“What has to happen, how many lives will be put at risk, before the Government steps up with a plan that guarantees the future of what is a vital service?”
Mr Swinney hit back: “I honestly do not think that Mr Marra is serving the people whom he represents well by expressing the issue in that fashion.
“After February, a new consultant was appointed in NHS Tayside to provide that service. There is ongoing recruitment for a further post, and ongoing clinical support is provided by NHS Grampian.”
He added: “I hope that provides the reassurance to members of the public in the Tayside area that Mr Marra’s unfortunate expression of his question certainly did not.”
NHS Tayside’s oncology department was thrown into turmoil in early 2019 following the revelation that around 200 patients were given lower-than-standard doses of chemotherapy drugs in a bid to reduce harmful side effects.
The SNP are in complete denial. https://t.co/Ltl5VGhVnx
— Willie Rennie (@willie_rennie) November 11, 2021
A series of heavily disputed government-commissioned reports claimed the practice put patients at a 1-2% increased risk of seeing their cancer return and criticised the clinicians involved for failing to fully inform patients of their care.
We revealed how investigations by the General Medical Council effectively cleared individual team members over the treatment and said it would not be normal practice to discuss different chemotherapy doses offered at other hospitals.
‘Not even a sticking plaster’
Speaking later on Thursday, Mr Marra said women living in Mr Swinney’s own Perthshire North constituency are served by NHS Tayside and are “already missing out on vital breast cancer treatment”.
He added: “To bury his head in sand puts his own constituents health at ever greater risk.
“Women are already travelling, today, far and wide for treatment. Some will or cannot travel and suffer as a result.”
He continued: “Patients are choosing to go private because the service at NHS Tayside is a skeleton service due to the incompetence of the board and the SNP Government.
“In February there were promises of action. Nine months later they deny there is even a problem.
“The Government need to get a grip, and get a grip now, and save these lifesaving services. An advert for a locum is not a plan. It’s not even a sticking plaster.”
What we asked the Scottish Government about the NHS Tayside breast cancer crisis
We asked the Scottish Government a series of questions about breast cancer services in Tayside and their response to findings by the GMC. Here is what we asked and the answers we were given:
The GMC said the outcomes of using lower doses “have largely not been compared in clinical trials and therefore cannot be said to offer proven inferior outcomes”.
It also stated it “would not be normal practice for an individual consultant to discuss with a given patient the differences in chemotherapy doses recommended or the other possible regimens available either in their centre or at another centre”.
What is the Government’s response to that given it is completely at odds with the findings of reviews it ordered into this issue?
“The GMC conduct any reviews into professional practice, rightly, independently of Scottish Government and the NHS.”
Given the GMC could not agree with the findings, and that the expert behind the claim that patients were put at a 1-2% increased risk of recurrence admits himself it was flawed, what steps are the Government now taking to make sure patients have the proper answers over their care they have repeatedly asked for?
“We are fully supportive of a continued breast cancer service in NHS Tayside. NHS Tayside currently offers a full breast oncology service.
“Scottish Government officials have weekly calls with colleagues in NHS Tayside to ensure that we are aware of any issues and that all support necessary is being provided.
“NHS Tayside received £781,000 of funding in 2021/22 to support cancer waiting times.
“This included investing in additional specialist nurses and healthcare support workers for follow-up appointments, and redirecting consultant resource to new patient appointments.”
What action will the government be taking to ensure the future of cancer services in Tayside?
“A new consultant breast oncologist started in August this year and recruitment is ongoing for clinical and medical oncologists. Our priority remains that we continue to deliver a service for patients in Tayside.”