As Michael Matheson fought for his job, a deadly NHS scandal was left unresolved – Jackie Baillie
Scandalised and shamed, Health Secretary Michael Matheson has finally stepped down. Was he waiting for a better wifi signal before posting in his resignation? It has taken far too long to get Humza Yousaf to let go of this discredited minister, and still he does not seem to acknowledge the sense of dishonesty and entitlement Matheson displayed.
Instead he described Matheson as “a man of integrity and honesty” when the world could see the truth of the £11,000 iPad bill, the expenses claim he expected the public to pay. This tawdry episode has been another massive distraction from running the NHS.
The cover-ups, headlines and lack of direction from the top have a direct effect on patients. Scandals like thousands of women missing their cervical smear tests have been left unresolved as the Health Secretary tried to cling on.
The missing cancer screenings are the result of a scandalous bureaucratic error which ministers have failed to address. Dating back many years, it affects women who had a hysterectomy where only part of the cervix was removed and were later wrongly excluded from the cervical cancer screening programme.
When the issue first emerged in 2021, we were told it might affect around 1,500 women. But health authorities are now attempting to contact another 150,000 women. In 2021, we were told the 1,500 who had hysterectomies after 1997 were to be contacted first followed by those before 1997. The then minister said the review of all the cases would be concluded by that July, with the women notified by August.
However, only 85,000 have actually been reviewed. There are women out there waiting, not knowing what's going on, three years after a ministerial commitment that this would be sorted. This is more than just the coding error said to be the reason. We know at least three women have died of cervical cancer after they were wrongly excluded from screening.
While the coding error has been addressed, the consequences have not. I was contacted by a woman this week who has not had any screening since a hysterectomy 30 years ago. Not all of her cervix was removed, she is at risk of cancer and she will not be alone.
These women need to have their screening resumed as a matter of urgency. That is what we were promised three years ago. It’s a scandal this has not been done and women may have died as a result.
Had it not been for some remarkable campaigning journalism, we wouldn't know the true situation. The SNP government operates in a culture of secrecy. The figures have been clawed out of the darkness, accompanied by no apology and no new timescales.
The government’s complacency will be cold comfort to grieving families and thousands of women who went through an operation decades ago. The NHS is running hot, we know how the pandemic strained the system, but resources were allocated to this task, a management system was put in place and three years later the job is still outstanding.
This scandal once again demonstrates the low priority given to women’s health by this government. The new Health Secretary should be hunting down these records, contacting these women and closing the book on this chapter of SNP mismanagement.
Jackie Baillie MSP is Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson
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