NHS patients will have to wait three years before delays to “legally binding” waiting time guarantees are brought to an end, Jeane Freeman has admitted.
The health secretary unveiled an £850 million improvement package to tackle waiting times as she told MSPs at Holyrood yesterday: “Some people are waiting too long to receive the care they need.”
Of this, £355m is new cash and will be initially focussed on patients whose treatment is urgent and have been waiting the longest.
The Scottish Government has come under repeated fire for its failure to meet NHS waiting times standards. Ministers introduced the Treatment Time Guarantee, which gave patients a legal right to treatment within 12 weeks for conditions such as knee and eye operations.
But the law has been broken 153,170 times since it was introduced, with some patients waiting up to double this length of time.
The gradual improvement plan sees the waiting time guarantee being brought down over the next few years with interim targets. The aim is that there are finally no patients left waiting more than 12 weeks for an inpatient appointment by spring 2021.
Ms Freeman said: “Our central aim is to significantly improve the experience of patients waiting to be seen or treated.
“Meeting these commitments requires work to address existing targets, but it also requires a whole-system approach spanning hospital, primary, community, and social care to really increase sustainable delivery.
“Solutions will be different in different areas of the country and in different specialities – but the drive for improvement will be national in scope.”
The plan will target an increase in capacity across the health service, improving clinical effectiveness and efficiency, and designing and implementing new models of care.
Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “This government gave patients a legal right to treatment within 12 weeks, however, that law has been broken 150,000 times.
“Yet it appears the government’s grand plan on waiting times is to keep on breaking its own law until 2021. This is astonishing.”
The plan unveiled yesterday commits and directs investment of £535m in frontline spending, and around £120m in capital, in addition to the ongoing £200m elective and diagnostic treatment centres programme over the next two and a half years.
This will include £17m being invested in Forth Valley Royal Hospital, to deliver two theatres by next October, bringing additional capacity for 1,500 more joint replacements or equivalent procedures. By June, the hospital will have a second MRI scanner to allow 8,000 more diagnostic examinations per year.
A £4m investment will also be used to increase domestic and international recruitment, focusing on GP, nursing, midwifery and consultant specialities with the highest vacancy rates.
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “The fact is that the treatment time guarantee, legislated for all the way back in 2012, has never been met.
“Now the SNP has publicly accepted that it has failed to deliver on promises made to patients across Scotland.
“Far more is needed to address Scotland’s NHS workforce crisis, and year after year, the SNP proves it is not up to the job.”
Yesterday’s announcement came ahead of a debate in which cuts to frontline GP services in Fife were criticised by SNP backbenchers amid claims patients could be “isolated” from out-of-hours services.
Angry MSPs yesterday hit out at the closure out-of-hours services in Glenrothes, St Andrews and Dunfermline, with services in Fife being centralised in Kirkcaldy’s Victoria Hospital.
Jenny Gilruth, SNP MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, said the decision was down to the Fife Health and Social Care Partnership and warned that patients will suffer. She said many of her constituents in Glenrothes fear they will not be able to afford the taxi fare to Kirkcadly if they need it.
“This decision will widen health inequalities because it will be the poorest who suffer,” Ms Gilruth added.
She warned that people in Glenrothes and the surrounding villages could become “isolated from round the clock healthcare”.