HEALTH Secretary Alex Neil has given a one hundred per cent assurance that all hospital in-patients in Scotland will be seen within 12 weeks - despite acknowledging his guarantee could be breached.
The Scottish Government and NHS “are going to get one hundred per cent” compliance with the legally binding 12-week treatment time guarantee, Mr Neil told Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee.
But it “may not be possible to ensure that there are no breaches of the guarantee”, Mr Neil acknowledged.
However, he rejected Labour accusations that the so-called guarantee is “a farce”, insisting Labour’s handling of waiting times in the previous Scottish Government and the present Welsh Government is the actual “farce”.
Scottish patients used to wait years for treatments now available within 12 weeks, while waiting times in Wales are “out of control”, Neil said.
‘Substantial risk’ of missed target
Scotland’s top health official Paul Gray has said it may not be possible to ensure there are no breaches of the “guarantee”, and accepted he is “not fulfilling the will of parliament” by falling short of one hundred per cent compliance.
Echoing these remarks today, Mr Neil said: “By definition, if a health board is not meeting the treatment time guarantee then they are not meeting the requirements of the legislation.”
Committee convener Hugh Henry said: “Do you agree with Mr Gray that it may not be possible to ensure that there are no breaches of the guarantee?”
Mr Neil said: “You’re always going to have, in a system that is dealing with the number of patients we are dealing with every year, a very substantial risk.
“In a small hospital where there might be one consultant in a particular discipline and that consultant goes ill for a period of time and does so suddenly, there’s always going to be the opportunity and the chance that that will happen.
“However, up till now across the health service as a whole we have achieved over 98% in terms of achieving the treatment time guarantee, even with the problems with Grampian and Lothian, and I think by any standard most folk would accept that that is a very credible performance.
“But the law says that we must get to one hundred per cent and we are going to get to one hundred per cent.”
He went on to challenge Mr Henry’s frequent description of the guarantee as “a farce”, insisting that when the Labour MSP was deputy health minister in the first Scottish Parliament “waiting times for some of the procedures that are now down to 12 weeks were measured not just in months, but in some cases years”.
Mr Henry said: “If someone doesn’t have their legal right fulfilled they can go for judicial review, which is both time consuming and exceedingly expensive.
“It might be an option for you or me on the salaries that we earn, but it wouldn’t be something easily available to most of our constituents.”
He added: “Why bother to put this into legislation in the first place when it’s so complicated?
“When there’s no evident easy route for patients to exercise their legal right and where there doesn’t appear to be any impact on health boards that fail, it becomes a farce.”
Mr Neil said: “To describe this as a farce is ridiculous. The farce was when people had to wait months for this kind of treatment. They now have to wait 12 weeks.
“We inherited a farce of long waiting times and long waiting lists.
“We now by far have the best waiting times in the whole of the UK. If you compare us particularly to Wales where waiting times and A&E turnaround times are way out of control, then the Scottish health system is doing brilliantly.”
‘Most’ NHS settlements include confidentiality clause
Later, it emerged that sacked or disgruntled NHS Scotland staff are almost automatically subject to confidentiality agreements, according to Scotland’s top health official.
All but one of the 148 settlement agreements signed since 2011/12 contained confidentiality clauses and the vast majority of the 697 from the last five years probably did too, NHS Scotland chief executive Paul Gray said.
Confidentiality clauses appear to be almost automatic policy at NHS Scotland, he told Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee.
Health Secretary Alex Neil initially claimed that confidentiality clauses are “very often” requested by the staff themselves, before relegating this to “sometimes” and then conceding that he has no supporting statistics but that he was “going by anecdotal evidence”.
He will endeavour to provide data on the number of staff who have asked for confidentiality agreements “provided it’s not in breach of a confidentiality agreement”, he said.
He is reviewing confidentiality clauses in NHS Scotland to ensure they do not “hide what should be transparent”, he said.