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Nicola Sturgeon ‘in denial’ over collapse of Tayside breast cancer service

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of being “in denial” over the NHS Tayside breast cancer scandal after refusing to accept an oncology service with no oncologists has collapsed.

The first minister was also criticised for using figures at Holyrood that appear to downplay the number of patients being forced to travel to other areas for treatment.

The SNP leader faced fresh calls to launch an independent inquiry into the crisis after a special investigation by The Courier revealed new evidence and allegations of a cover-up at the health board.

Speaking during first minister’s questions on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon insisted it was “shamefully wrong” to say the breast cancer service in Tayside has “collapsed” in the wake of the scandal.

Reputational damage, coupled with a national shortage of specialists, has made it difficult for NHS Tayside to hire new staff following an exodus of consultants.

Numbers don’t add up

Ms Sturgeon claimed that “around 150 new patients” are referred to the service every week and because only seven of those will receive treatment outside of Tayside, it is “wrong” to describe the service in that way.

However, “around 150” actually refers to the number of patients being sent to surgical clinic to investigate concerns, such as abnormalities on a mammogram.

Seven patients a week being sent outside the region for radiotherapy represents the vast majority of patients in Tayside actually diagnosed with early stage disease.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar accused the first minister of issuing a “dismissive response” to the concerns of those affected by the scandal.

Anas Sarwar MSP, leader of Scottish Labour

He said: “The first minister is in denial about the scale of this shameful crisis.

“It is staggering to try and claim an oncology service without a single consultant oncologist hasn’t collapsed.

“All of the patients travelling for treatment will look at the first minister’s words and feel ignored. This state of affairs must end.

“This dismissive response is an insult to the patients, families and staff being failed in this scandal.”

NHS Tayside confirmed for the first time on Thursday that they have now hired a locum oncologist on a temporary basis.

Growing calls for an inquiry

Mr Sarwar used first minister’s questions to call on Ms Sturgeon to launch an independent inquiry.

He said the collapse had left “vulnerable women travelling across the country to receive life-saving treatment”.

But Ms Sturgeon said that characterisation “neither comes close to accurately describing the current service nor does it do anything to help any current patients or the dedicated doctors that are working within that centre”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

She said: “There are around 150 new patients referred to Tayside breast services every week.

“Out of them, around seven will receive treatment in another centre.

“So it is just wrong, and I think shamefully wrong, to use the word collapsed to describe a service in which doctors are working in a dedicated fashion, in which many patients have been treated every single week.”

VIDEO: Watch our breast cancer scandal documentary here

Ms Sturgeon acknowledged there are “serious issues” but insisted they “require to be assessed by experts and clinicians”.

She said she will not “shy away” from further review if necessary.

Roles go unfilled at troubled department

Mr Sarwar called on the first minister to watch The Courier’s investigation to hear the stories and experiences of NHS staff and families.

“There are zero breast cancer oncologists in Tayside,” he said.

“Zero. If zero doesn’t equate to collapse, then I’m not sure what definition the first minister would use.”

A freedom of information request revealed that by the start of September, 204 patients in Tayside had been referred to other NHS boards for oncology care.

Some 199 of those were patients receiving radiotherapy treatment.

NHS Tayside breast cancer services

The same request revealed there were nine vacancies in the oncology department, with the lead breast cancer consultant post vacant for 839 days.

“The government’s failure to get a grip of this crisis is putting women’s lives at risk,” Mr Sarwar said.

“At one of the most traumatic times in a woman’s life, they are facing additional barriers to treatment and all the anxiety that comes with that.”

Ms Sturgeon said: “There is work to do here to ensure the sustainability and the ongoing quality of cancer care and breast cancer care in NHS Tayside.

“But the vast overwhelming majority of those referred to that service do not go for treatment to another centre, they get quality treatment in NHS Tayside.

“And I say again it does a disservice to that service to suggest otherwise.”

NHS hails ‘first welcome step’

NHS Tayside medical director Dr Pamela Johnston said: “NHS Tayside is absolutely committed to delivering a breast cancer service locally.

“The oncology team has been working with other centres in Scotland to ensure patients receive the radiotherapy part of their treatment this year, while the Tayside oncology team continue to deliver all other parts of the patient care and treatment, including chemotherapy, locally.

“The oncology team is determined to continue to deliver high quality cancer services in Tayside and is making positive progress towards recruitment, with a locum breast oncologist now in post.

“This is a first welcome step as the oncology department strives to deliver all breast oncology services locally, and our aim remains that all patients will be seen in Tayside in the future.

“We are encouraged that we are now able to offer radiotherapy to more breast cancer patients in Tayside due to this recent appointment, but unfortunately some patients still need to travel to specialist cancer centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

“We know that this adds additional stress to what is an already difficult time for patients and therefore we are committed to continuing to support everyone who needs to travel to ensure their pathway is as smooth as possible.”