It didn’t take Neil Gray long to wield the health budget axe - Sue Webber

Maybe I should have sympathy for SNP health secretary Neil Gray. After all he’s barely been in the job long enough to remember the way to the gents from his new office and he’s had to swing the axe on a raft of promised new facilities vital for NHS Scotland’s future.
Scottish Health Secretary Neil Gray during a visit to Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in GlasgowScottish Health Secretary Neil Gray during a visit to Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow
Scottish Health Secretary Neil Gray during a visit to Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow

But he’s First Minster Humza Yousaf’s right-hand man and will have had a key role in making the budget decisions which have led to the plug being pulled on the replacement for the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion (PAEP), the new cancer unit at the Western General and the national treatment centre at St John’s.

It is all very well spouting the usual avoidance of responsibility by blaming Westminster for a shortage of money, but the Scottish Government has never had more money than it has now, and these decisions are a direct result of their choices.

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The decision was not unexpected, and NHS Lothian has known for months that the chances of getting the green light to replace the PAEP ─ condemned as unfit for purpose ten years ago ─ were less than Nicola Sturgeon publishing her WhatsApp messages.

And the basic dishonesty over the PAEP goes back to the former First Minister, when in the heat of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, Nicola Sturgeon reversed a 2018 decision not to fund the new hospital, and as recently as last September Humza Yousaf still insisted he was “absolutely committed” to the project, but wouldn’t set a date.

Everyone knows a promise without a timetable is virtually meaningless, so I wrote to the NHS Lothian chief executive Calum Campbell and received a predictably vague reply in October, talking about Scottish Government prioritisation over 20 years, but making it clear he could not confirm when the new PAEP would be built.

I was not alone in hearing there would be a two-year moratorium on these crucial NHS investments and said so in this column more than once, but it gives me no pleasure to say I told you so.

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The Evening News ran a front-page story three weeks ago, so what possible excuse is there for not coming clean with the public earlier when the decision has been one of the Scottish Government’s worst kept secrets for months?

As long ago as last September Audit Scotland pointed out the SNP would be unable to meet its capital spending commitments and warned key projects were being paused. But it also advised the Scottish Government should, “produce clear information that explains how it decided to prioritise, delay, or cancel projects and programmes”.

I wrote to now ex-health secretary Michael Matheson for an explanation about NHS Lothian investment plans on October 18, and even though he was busy getting bad advice about what to say about his holiday iPad usage, it’s unacceptable that it took until this week for his successor to reply.

It just adds to the SNP’s justified reputation for evasiveness and deflection, and in Neil Gray’s letter to me there was no credible explanation for the postponements, other than times are tough.

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Instead, he went on about national treatment centres opening in Fife and Highland and expanding Clydebank’s Golden Jubilee hospital, as if that makes any difference here. My sympathy for him ended at “Dear Sue”.

Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative Lothian MSP

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