Legislation guaranteeing NHS patients will receive treatment within 12 weeks has been branded “worthless”, after new figures showed the target was missed in more than two out of five cases in parts of Scotland.
As health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon introduced the Treatment Time Guarantee – but as the latest health service waiting statistics were published, Liberal Democrats said the law was now being broken 200 times a day.
Official figures for the last three months of 2018 showed that across Scotland fewer than three quarters (72.7%) of those waiting for either inpatient or day case treatment had this within 12 weeks – down from 80% in October to December 2017.
In some areas more than two fifths of patients failed to receive treatment within the guaranteed time.
NHS Highland treated 54.7% of patients within 12 weeks, while NHS Lanarkshire and NHS Grampian treated 57.2% and 57.5% respectively.
A total of 18,701 patients waited more than 12 weeks for their procedure in October to December, the figures showed.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton hit out: “This shows how shallow the SNP Government’s promises are on the NHS.
“Nicola Sturgeon went as far as putting this treatment guarantee into law, but her own Government is now breaking that law 200 times a day. It is utterly worthless.”
He added: “The SNP Government’s solution is to stop breaching its own law by 2021 – a full decade after it was passed.
“It’s hard to believe they will even manage that given performance is getting worse and worse. Scottish Liberal Democrats demand better.”
Meanwhile, Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said the Treatment Time Guarantee was broken more than 71,000 times in 2018.
She said: “The reason for this is down to an SNP Government in Edinburgh not giving our NHS staff the support they need and deserve.
“Every time this law is broken, it leaves a patient in pain or distress as they wait to get the treatment they need – but the Health Secretary’s grand plan is to keep on breaking this law until 2021.”
The Scottish Government has put in place a waiting times action plan, but under that it could be 2021 before some targets are met.
Meanwhile separate figures from the NHS showed the ambition to have 90% of patients begin treatment within 18 weeks of being referred was only met for 79.5% of people in December.
In addition to this, at the end of 2018 there were 83,515 people waiting for key diagnostic tests.
While the target is that patients shoud wait no more than six weeks for this, it was achieved for 78.1% of people – down from 79.3% in December 2017.
Gordon Matheson, Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, said the figures showed the NHS was “under continued strain with too many patients still waiting too long for tests, some of which could detect cancer”.
He added: “With a welcome focus on screening and early detection of cancer, there’s an urgent need to comprehensively address workforce shortages.
“Much needed investment in this area is beginning to emerge and it’s vital we see a strong emphasis on making sure we have enough staff to meet increasing patient need, and that existing staff are being used to their best potential.”
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “I am clear that current waiting time performance is not good enough and that is why we are continuing to implement our new £850 million Waiting Times Improvement Plan.
“Last week I was at the Golden Jubilee National Hospital to announce the first tranche of funding – almost £27 million nationally – to increase workforce, purchase new equipment and create additional clinics at weekends.”
She added: “As outlined in the Waiting Times Improvement Plan, we will start to see a reduction in long waits once capacity has increased across the service.
“This is ongoing at the moment, and our aim is that, by spring 2021, performance for outpatients waiting less than 12 weeks will be improved to 95%, and for inpatients and day cases under the Treatment Time Guarantee it will be 100%.”
Ms Freeman stressed: “There is currently a concerted effort across Scotland to reduce a backlog of long waits for patients, and once these cases have been addressed I expect to see overall performance improve.”