FORMER Health Secretary Alex Neil last night condemned the “horrific ordeal” suffered by victims of what is potentially Scotland’s biggest ever medical negligence scandal.
And he called for the postponement of a report he ordered into surgical mesh implants which victims have already branded a “whitewash”.
Mr Neil instigated the review in 2014 in the face of mounting evidence about the safety of mesh surgery and after meeting women left with life-changing disabilities.
Now he wants the inquiry report to be delayed to address victims’ concerns.
They say vital evidence has been ignored or unexpectedly deleted from earlier draft findings.
And the SNP politician is calling for the appointment of an independent ombudsman to investigate patients’ concerns about the inquiry, as well as allegations of conflicts of interest among the expert panel.
His intervention – just as the report was expected to be published – added to mounting pressure on his successor as health minister, Shona Robison, to review whether the inquiry should go back to the drawing board.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Post, Mr Neil said: “I can see with my own eyes how terrible this whole thing is for women who have suffered horribly.
“They have suffered a horrific ordeal.
“I made a promise they’d be at the very heart of the review and there’s no point in a report which has no credibility among those it’s supposed to help.”
The MSP, who suspended the controversial surgery three years ago, insists an ombudsman must now be appointed to address patient allegations of evidence deletion.
And he believes anyone found to be responsible for ignoring or withholding vital evidence should face sanctions.
Mr Neil called on Ms Robison to delay publication of the report which campaigners who have seen a copy of the likely final version claimed was little more than “pro-mesh propaganda”.
At least one expert on the review, as well as patient representatives Elaine Holmes and Olive McIlroy of Scottish Mesh Survivors, has already resigned, claiming the review was “tainted”.
The campaigners say international safety warnings and evidence of the dangers of mesh surgery, which has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women worldwide, has been ignored or withheld.
Mr Neil said: “I trust these women.
“I’m appalled by the suggestion that anyone with any conflict of interest may have been appointed to the review.
“Any conflicts should have been made clear.”
For the first time, Mr Neil admitted that he had faced significant opposition from within the medical community when he suspended the surgery for bladder and prolapse conditions.
He added: “The women have raised concerns and I have studied their dossier of evidence.
“I believe an independent ombudsman should be appointed.”
Elaine, 53, from Newton Mearns, near Glasgow, who has been left in a wheelchair, said: “We applaud his integrity.
“He was one of the first of nearly 100 MSPs to sign a pledge that there would be no whitewash.
“As Health Secretary, his decision to suspend implants and order the review was brave, prompting other countries to examine the issue.”
Her fellow campaigner Olive, 60, from Renfrew, said: “We have tried to tell Ms Robison that the report has gone wrong and we can now only hope she listens to a voice of a colleague.”
Mr Neil admitted he had had to stand up to “officialdom” when he ordered the suspension of the surgery.
“I’m glad I did. It was clear there was resistance but I would have had a guilty conscience if I had done nothing,” he added.
“After meeting with the women and listening carefully to all they told me, I went away and carefully considered what to do before calling for the suspension and independent review.
“I have never doubted I did the right thing by calling for a review. I stand by my decision and I’d make the same decision today.
“In fact, the evidence that has since emerged from all over the world, coupled with the opportunity I’ve now had to see and examine those implants, makes me even angrier, more shocked and more determined that we get to the truth.”
In the wake of the controversial surgery, the NHS in Scotland is being sued by more than 400 injured women – making it the biggest medical negligence claim north of the Border. And Mr Neil believes that if manufacturers are found to be at fault they should not only pay compensation for the ruined lives but for the ongoing treatment of patients.
He added: “Why should the NHS bear the burden?
“The evidence that has since emerged from all over the world, coupled with the opportunity I’ve had to see and examine those implants, makes me even angrier, more shocked and more determined to get to the truth.
“I am appalled at the agony of women whose lives have been ruined.
“And if their allegations about the report being compromised are correct it merits a special investigation and if anyone has withheld evidence they should face discipline. Our job is to protect the public and ensure everyone has the best and safest treatment our great NHS has to offer.”
According to Mr Neil, the only way to prevent similar scandals in the future is to introduce mandatory medical reporting of all complications associated with mesh.
He added: “Without that, how are we ever going to give women all the facts, the full information, so they can make informed choices.”
Mr Neil believes his successor will do the right thing.
He said: “I have every confidence Shona will make the right decisions.
“I’m sure, like me, she will be truly appalled at what has happened and she will want to find out whether the allegations raised by the women are true. She has the qualities to do the right thing, and I sincerely hope she does.
“Shona may take a different decision from the one I have suggested, but I believe she will want to see a proper, untainted review.”
Ms Robison has indicated she will make a ministerial announcement on the mesh issue on Thursday.
But it’s unclear what exactly the announcement might say.
Last night, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The chair of the independent review has fully considered all the evidence and will publish her report shortly.
“This is a highly complex and technical subject area and the Scottish Mesh Survivors Group will remain at the centre of this crucial work.”