After SNP's broken cancer pledge, Humza Yousaf must succeed where Nicola Sturgeon failed and get NHS back to its life-saving best – Scotsman comment

The early diagnosis of cancer is a matter of life and death.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf must succeed in dramatically increasing early diagnosis of cancer where Nicola Sturgeon failed (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

So when, as Health Secretary in 2012, Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to increase the number of diagnoses of breast, colorectal and lung cancers in the first stage of the disease by 25 per cent by 2015, she was making a hugely important, life-saving pledge.

However, according to Public Health Scotland, the figures for the whole of 2019 and 2020 were just 3.3 per cent higher – a six-year-old target missed by more than 20 percentage points.

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Furthermore, mortality rates for all cancers were 66 per cent higher in the most deprived areas compared to the wealthiest.

Clearly the pressure on the NHS as a result of the Covid pandemic will have had an effect on diagnosis during 2020, but the failure to reach the target – the figure rose to eight per cent, then fell back – in previous years shows that it does not provide an explanation for this undelivered pledge.

Commenting on the figures, Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie warned of a “looming cancer catastrophe”, saying “the real risk is that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg here”.

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And this is a concern shared by cancer charities, with many people putting off going to see their GP because they know how busy and under-pressure the health service is.

In October last year, an analysis by MacMillan Cancer Support estimated that up to 4,300 people in Scotland could be living with undiagnosed cancer and that 2,250 people who should have started treatment between April and September of that year had not.

If the hoped-for progress on early diagnosis had been made before the pandemic hit, NHS Scotland’s cancer care services would have been in a better place to cope with the sudden shock to the system it presented.

The NHS does many things but – and this hardly needs to be stated – treatment that saves lives must always be its top priority.

So, as Scottish Tory health spokesman Sandesh Gulhane said, these figures are “an urgent wake-up call” for Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

Where his current boss failed, he must now succeed. While she appears to have prioritised other things, he must apply a laser-like focus to getting the NHS back to its life-saving best.

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