NATS ministers have been ordered to explain how they will clear a backlog of more than 100,000 patients waiting for crucial diagnostic tests.
Official figures revealed the staggering number of Scots who had gone without procedures such as CT or MRI scans by the end of last year — many of which are vital in helping detect cancer.
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Rivals and campaigners warned the hold-up was a “catastrophe” which was putting “lives at risk”.
Describing her fears for the 100,913 people awaiting endoscopy and radiology checks, Cancer Research UK in Scotland’s public affairs manager Kirsty Slack said: “We remain deeply concerned about the ongoing backlog of people waiting to receive these crucial tests and get a diagnosis.
“Long-standing staff shortages within cancer services must be addressed as a priority to ensure they are fit for the future.
“Early diagnosis followed by swift access to the most effective treatment can be life-saving.”
Public Health Scotland figures published showed some 31,687 patients were waiting for endoscopy checks at the end of 2020, up 44.5 per cent on December 31, 2019 — including 1,236 whose delay was longer than a year.
A total of 69,276 were on the list for radiology checks as of December 31 last year, an increase of 5.5 per cent on 2019.
That includes 273 who’d waited more than 52 weeks. The Scottish Government’s target is for no patient to wait more than six weeks for a diagnostic test — a goal politicians said had not been met since June 2010.
Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie said: “These figures are a catastrophe waiting to happen and demonstrate the consistent failure of the SNP to deliver healthcare on time, when needed.
“It is a blow for the thousands who’ll suffer because of a delayed diagnosis and will miss vital treatment for serious illness. We must have a clear route to fully reopen health services now.”
Scottish Tory shadow health secretary Donald Cameron said: “While we all understand the NHS’s focus on Covid, the SNP government cannot let these patients be forgotten. Nor can ministers try to deflect blame for such a significant backlog.
“Even prior to the pandemic, the SNP’s record on hitting health targets was dismal. Ministers must urgently outline how they will be seen as soon as possible.”
Lib Dem health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton added: “Catching cancer at an early stage can be lifesaving. The government is failing people and potentially putting lives at risk.”
And Labour’s Monica Lennon, said: “Early diagnosis is key to survival
“If SNP ministers don’t start living up to their responsibilities, more lives will be put at risk.”
Screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancers were paused in the first lockdown.
Many others were put on hold or reduced, with fewer referrals and urgent treatments only.
New figures also revealed the overall number waiting for vital tests at the end of December was 15.3 per cent — or 13,370 — higher than the same period in 2019.
Of those, 44,516 faced a delay of more than six weeks compared to 17,906 at the end of 2019.
PHS said health boards began resuming some services from June 19 as part of a “remobilisation”.
In November, a further Scottish Government plan sought to maximise the resumption of services “where possible”, while balancing the need to ensure sufficient capacity for virus patients.
But PHS chiefs stressed the latest findings “continue to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Their report said: “As services for non-urgent care were temporarily paused, the early impact of the first wave of Covid-19 led to compliance with the national six week standard dropping as low as 27.9 per cent at May 31, 2020.
“Since then, the percentage that had been waiting six weeks or less has increased, reaching 57.2 per cent at 30 November 2020.
“Performance dropped slightly to 55.9 per cent at December 31, influenced in part by the usual decrease in activity over the festive period.
“Despite the general upward trend in proportion of patients waiting six weeks or less since the onset of the pandemic, performance remains markedly down on 79.5 per cent reported at the same date in 2019.”
Between last April and June, around 4,000 fewer people were diagnosed with cancer than would have been expected — a fall of around 40 per cent.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has pledged £114million to improve cancer care after services.
The Scottish Government vowed treating patients with the disease remains “a top priority”.
A spokesman added: “Throughout this period, health boards have been working hard to ensure vital care remains in place where clinically agreed.
“Each board has detailed plans for the recovery of key services through to March.”
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