Health Secretary contradicts self on waiting times

Alex Neil contradicted himself over the treatment times guarantee. Picture: Andrew Cowan
Alex Neil contradicted himself over the treatment times guarantee. Picture: Andrew Cowan
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SCOTLAND’S health secretary has given a “100 per cent” assurance that patients in the Lothians will eventually have their legal right to prompt NHS treatment met – moments after admitting that his flagship law could be breached.

Alex Neil, giving evidence to Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee, singled NHS Lothian out as one of two Scottish health boards that is struggling to meet the legislation, which offers patients a guarantee that they will be treated for many inpatient procedures within 12 weeks.

NHS Lothian has outlined a plan to be compliant with the law by January next year, months later than NHS Grampian which says it will be meet it by the summer. By the health board’s own projections, it will break the law in up to 4469 cases this year.

Mr Neil said: “We must get to 100 per cent and we will get to 100 per cent” when challenged by convenor of the committee, Labour MSP Hugh Henry. He added: “I am determined to make sure every health board in Scotland abides by the law.”

However, he also acknowledged that it may not be possible to ensure that there are no breaches of the guarantee, saying there was a chance that consultants could take sick leave at short notice.

Mr Henry branded the law, which offers patients who do not have their legal right fulfilled little meaningful recourse and sees no punishment handed to health boards that break it, a “farce”.

Mr Neil hit back, saying Mr Henry’s terminology was “ridiculous” and that the law was met in 98 per cent of cases throughout the country. “I think as far as the public is concerned that’s a fantastic achievement,” he added.

John Connaghan, the director of health workforce and performance with the Government, also came under scrutiny for claiming at a previous Public Audit Committee meeting to be the “whistleblower” who exposed the waiting times scandal in NHS Lothian. It emerged in 2012 that the health board had embarked on large-scale fiddling of figures to hit Government targets.

He yesterday stuck by his words, saying: “I am not aware of anybody else who went to NHS Lothian and said there needs to be a substantial and detailed internal audit”, although he later said it “may be worthwhile” going to the health board and asking for a “sequence of events”.

Mr Connaghan’s claims have sparked an angry reaction from the Action to Save St John’s Hospital group, which has also claimed credit for exposing the NHS Lothian waiting list fiddle.

In a letter to the official, seen by the Evening News, group member Gordon Buerskens wrote: “Perhaps before you next rush headlong into an embarrassing and opportunistic exercise in self-aggrandisement at the expense of the real ‘whistleblowers’ whose work you plagiarise and denigrate, you might consider devoting your inestimable talents in performance management to identifying the problems that all the evidence is clearly pointing towards, before rather than after the ship hits the ice.”