Thousands on waiting lists may disagree with crisis denial - Sue Webber

Health Secretary Neil GrayHealth Secretary Neil Gray
Health Secretary Neil Gray
Crisis? What crisis? Older readers may remember how the words attributed to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan dogged him as the British economy crashed in the late 70s, and this week SNP health minister Neil Gray, pictured, followed his footsteps.

Thousands on long waiting lists for life-changing surgery, or struggling for a GP appointment, might disagree with his view that the Scottish health service is under pressure but not in crisis.

It’s not quite in the same league as former SNP transport minister Stewart Stevenson, who claimed his government’s response to the 2010 big freeze was “first class” when motorways were blocked for two days and people froze in their cars overnight, but it’s close.

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Pressure-not-a-crisis in NHS Lothian means a £133 million budget deficit this year, because the headline increase of 4.3 per cent in Scottish Government funding only covers the centrally-brokered pay deal, leaves nothing to cover all other rising costs. Nothing for energy, and it’s already known there will be a £25m cut in the drugs budget.

Planned efficiencies won’t fully bridge the gap, so one measure is what’s being described as “raising the thresholds for treatment”. In other words, you need to be more ill than you would have been this time last year for treatment to start. That’s some euphemism, but no, according to Mr Gray, it’s not a crisis.

It means one in 12 patients waiting over a year for an outpatient appointment, the worst being in ophthalmology. That’s the service that should be provided at the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion (PAEP) which was declared unfit for purpose ten years ago, and the repeated promise to build a replacement at Little France has not been honoured.

It means that despite a Scottish Government treatment time guarantee that by September last year all inpatient or day care cases would be seen in under 78 weeks – as if a year and a half was acceptable – at the end of the year around one in 34 were waiting over two years.

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And it means an already creaking system has to cope with a staggering 18.7 per cent increase in suspected cancer patients, and despite improvements over a fifth are made to wait two months to be seen.

Given the SNP has halted investment in a new cancer centre at the Western General and a treatment centre at Livingston St Johns − as well as the PAEP − I wrote to NHS Lothian chief executive Calum Campbell a fortnight ago to ask how the services these facilities were supposed to deliver will be affected.

I know Mr Campbell is an extremely busy man and I hope that when he does reply he will be able to say “not adversely”, but on the evidence of ophthalmology alone, I have grave doubts.

To borrow a phrase, Mr Campbell has been thrown a hospital pass by an SNP government which is totally failing to provide NHS Lothian with the funding and tools it needs to provide the crucial services that people in Edinburgh and the Lothians need and deserve.

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Identifying and treating diseases early is critical both for recovery and saving money in the longer term, but instead Mr Campbell is being forced into “raising the threshold for treatment”. Remember that when your doctor tells you just to take a couple of paracetamols.

Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative Lothian MSP