The backlog in cancer care caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been branded a “national emergency” by Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, after he highlighted the case of a grandmother forced to travel to London for surgery.
Figures released on Tuesday by Public Health Scotland (PHS) show 485 people waited more than two months to start cancer treatment after receiving an urgent referral in the last quarter of 2020.
Mr Sarwar also said figures from PHS published earlier this month show up to one in five cases of cancer could have been missed as a result of screening services being halted during the pandemic.
The Labour leader has previously said the NHS should not have to choose between fighting a pandemic or treating cancer, while calling for plans to be put in place to ramp up screening and treatment services.
He said: “The backlog for cancer treatment in Scotland is now a national emergency.
“There are thousands of missing patients and there needs to be an urgent plan to address this crisis, including rapid diagnostic centres and a catch-up plan for screenings by increasing staff and processing capacity to clear the backlog within a year.”
During Tuesday night’s first leaders’ debate, Mr Sarwar raised the case of 69-year-old Mary Hudson, whose ovarian cancer returned earlier this year.
He said Ms Hudson, who had an operation to treat the condition 18 months ago, was told Glasgow Royal Infirmary was only allowing operations for first occurrences of the disease – forcing her to travel to London to receive another procedure.
Mr Sarwar added: “It is a scandal that patients like Mary are having to travel hundreds of miles for surgery, and my thoughts are with her and her family.
“We have no idea how many other families are going through similar trauma.
“The pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer services, but the problems were there before Covid struck.
“The SNP has not met the waiting time standard for urgent referrals for nearly a decade.
“The next Parliament must be fully focused on a national recovery plan for our NHS so that we never again have to choose between treating a virus or treating cancer.”
Mary’s daughter Julie Goedkoop said: “We were absolutely determined to ensure mum receives surgery.
“But it’s unbelievable that she has to travel all the way to London for it.
“We are raising her case so that we can help others in the same situation.”
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “A diagnosis of cancer is a deeply painful and worrying time for individuals and their families.
“That’s why we prioritised cancer care as part of the recovery from the pandemic so that cancer patients have and will continue to receive treatment.
“Unlike Labour, rather than just talking about how we restore our NHS the SNP is already taking action.
“Our established cancer recovery plan, backed by £114.5 million, will ensure cancer patients continue to have equitable access to care in Scotland, regardless of where they live.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Cancer services can often involve specialist care or treatment, which may not be available at each cancer centre across the country.
“The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to cancer patients being treated as close to home as is clinically appropriate.
“In a very small number of cases, some highly specialist services may be delivered outwith Scotland, and patients should be fully supported in accessing this.”