In his second appearance at First Minister’s Questions since his election as leader, Mr Sarwar highlighted Scottish Labour analysis that showed almost 45,000 people are waiting more than the six-week target for diagnostic tests for conditions such as cancer.
Criticising the “old arguments”, he said it was time for Parliament to “focus on what unites us”. He called for a full restart of cancer services in Scotland following statistics that show 7,000 fewer people had a confirmed cancer diagnosis in the first eight months of the pandemic compared to expected numbers.
Mr Sarwar said: “Early diagnosis is vital – it is what saves lives, not just for cancer, but for other conditions too.
“Covid has placed a huge strain on our NHS and put even more pressure on an already overstretched workforce.
“But Covid didn’t create this problem – it has made a bad situation worse.
“We can’t come through Covid and go back to the old arguments. Instead we should focus on what unites us as a country, not what divides us, with a recovery and a catch-up plan for our NHS, so that we never again have to choose between treating a virus or treating cancer.”
Responding, Nicola Sturgeon said the Covid recovery would shed light on the wider death toll caused by the impact of the virus on the NHS and the other harms of lockdown.
The First Minister said: “Before Covid, average wait in terms of the time between diagnosis and treatment starting are very short in Scotland.
"We have recognised for a long time there is more to do to meet targets and to reduce waiting times further.
"Covid has undoubtedly been a serious difficulty because of the pause in many normal aspects of the NHS that is has necessitated.
"That is why through investment, through reforms to how treatments are being delivered and through many of the actions I’ve set out, we are now focused on getting the NHS back to normal.”