What justification can there be for turning down help to reduce NHS waiting lists?
This summer I spent a week living in a hospital in Basingstoke as my mum underwent life-saving cancer surgery. There was no option to have the operation in Scotland, so we both travelled down for the procedure as well as for a number of pre-op consultations, flying first to Southampton and then catching trains and Ubers to Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital. While the trips south took a huge physical and emotional toll on us both, the other option, death, was no option at all.
There are currently hundreds of thousands of Scots on waiting lists. Those figures include those waiting to be seen as a new outpatient or admitted for treatment as an inpatient or day case. While the majority are likely to be less serious cases, there are nevertheless many thousands of people who would welcome the opportunity to travel elsewhere in the UK if it meant speeding up their treatment.
Around the same time as my mum was going under the surgeon’s knife, the then English health secretary Steve Barclay was inviting his counterparts from Scotland and Wales to discuss ways of cutting the backlogs. It has subsequently emerged that he offered to take Scottish NHS patients into English hospitals to help reduce waiting times north of the border, an invitation apparently flatly declined by health secretary Michael Matheson.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the motives of the UK Government. Barclay, who has since been replaced with Victoria Atkins, clearly knew how it would look if an SNP-led government accepted help from its Tory counterpart. But if the offer was genuine, then what possible justification can Matheson have for refusing it?
According to figures from Public Health Scotland, there are currently more than 525,000 ongoing waits for outpatient appointments – up by nearly 270,000 since March 2020. There are a further 151,000 waits for inpatient or day admissions and yet another 151,000 waiting for diagnostic tests. Some patients may be waiting on more than one of these lists.
Recently another family member was told that after finding a lump on her breast, she would have to wait six months for an appointment to get it checked out by a specialist. Luckily for her, she had access to private medical care which allowed her to get it seen to straight away and allay fears that it was anything too serious. Most people will not be in this situation – a lump left unchecked for six months could make a resulting cancer diagnosis more difficult to treat, not to mention the anguish and worry of waiting for the appointment.
As this case shows, the government has effectively created a two-tier health system due to its own incompetence. Those with the means will pay for private care while those without will suffer reduced health outcomes based on interminable waits as more and more people join the queue every day.
Matheson hasn’t had his problems to seek. Quite apart from the challenges facing the NHS as we head into another winter, he has had to fend off questions over an iPad roaming bill for £11,000 – a scandal he should have resigned over. But if he turned down a genuine offer of help that would have seen hundreds if not thousands of Scots treated quicker, then that is truly unforgivable.
Figures obtained by Scottish Labour and raised at First Minister’s Questions show that more than 24,500 people died last year while on an NHS waiting list. While it would be a push to describe my mum as lucky, she is nevertheless still here. There are many others who never got the chance.