Scotland's drugs deaths: Demand for ministerial statement as pressure mounts on Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon is under increasing pressure to take responsibility for Scotland’s spiralling drugs death toll, as demands mount for a ministerial statement with “new ideas” to halt the number of lives being lost.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Drug users prepare heroin before injecting, inside of a Safe Consumption van set up by Peter Krykant on September 25, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Peter a recovering heroin addict and former drugs worker, has set up the drug consumption van where addicts can inject safely and take drugs under supervision. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The First Minister is facing calls for action after the latest figures showed another grim record total for drugs deaths, with 1339 people dying in 2020, ensuring Scotland retained its place as having the worst drug deaths rate in Europe, and one that is three-and-a-half times higher than England and Wales.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said she needed to make tackling the crisis her “political priority after 15 years of failure” and if she failed to make progress she should “make way for someone who will.”

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The Scottish Conservatives have also called for an increased response with health spokeswoman Annie Wells criticising the government for “no extra support, no new ideas, no new solutions to this crisis.”

Meanwhile many SNP MSPs are believed to privately support a Bill planned by the Conservatives which would enshrine in law the right to recovery treatment, including rehabilitation.

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The Scottish Parliament will be recalled on Tuesday for a Covid update from the First Minister, and pressure is growing for a ministerial statement on the drugs deaths scandal and how the government will react.

Despite a previous announcement to spend £250m over the next five years on services and support, a decision made after the 2019 death toll and the sacking of the former public health minister Joe FitzPatrick, opposition MSPs have demanded more be done in the wake of the latest statistics.

The call for action also comes as it was revealed staff at a vital organisation supporting addicts in Dundee, one of the worst hit places in Scotland for drugs deaths, are being laid off because government funding is ending.

Conservative health spokeswoman, Annie Wells, said: “We have called for a ministerial statement because, despite the latest heartbreaking drug statistics, the SNP government has offered no extra support, no new ideas, no new solutions to this crisis.

“The SNP is out of touch with the needs of people on the frontline of this crisis. People in our communities don’t need more warm words and empty platitudes, they need action.

“On Tuesday, we hope the government will have the decency to explain why they are stalling on backing our Right to Recovery Bill proposal, which would guarantee everyone who needs addiction treatment can get it.”

Anas Sarwar also demanded that Nicola Sturgeon update MSPs on her actions to tackle the crisis after the Covid statement.

“On Tuesday, the First Minister will update MSPs on one of the public health crises facing Scotland,” he said. “But last week’s drug death figures show that Covid is not the only health emergency haunting our country.

“Those statistics should shame Scotland – it should never have been allowed to get to this point.”

He added: “Each and every one of these deaths is a travesty, and each one is preventable. The First Minister, who admits she took her eye off the ball on this crisis, must update the Scottish Parliament on what they are now doing to save lives.

"It is not enough for the Government to express regret at these heartbreaking figures – they must be a call to action.

"Every year we get devastating figures, every year they get worse and every year we hear regret from the government. We have the same drug laws as the rest of the UK but three and a half times the rate of drugs deaths.

“Apologising or expressing regret just isn’t good enough.

“The First Minister should put all her political energy into solving this crisis – after 15 years in government it is a test she must pass.

“And if she fails to make progress she should make way for someone who will.”

When the statistics were published last week Ms Sturgeon said they were a “human tragedy”. She added: “The Scottish Government does not shirk the responsibility and we are determined to make changes that will save lives. These 2020 figures (though no less shameful because of it) predate actions set out at start of year.

“We now have a dedicated drugs minister in Angela Constance, a substantial funding commitment and action underway, for example, to ensure faster access to community support, treatment and rehab. We will also continue to argue for reform of drugs law, which is not currently within our power.”

However the Scottish Government said that any statement would be made by drugs policy minister Angela Constance, rather than the First Minister.

A spokesperson said Ms Constance had already written to Holyrood’s Presiding Officer “making clear that she stands ready to respond to any parliamentary or committee requests in relation to drug deaths.

"The parliamentary agenda is a matter for Parliament’s cross-party Business Bureau to decide and should they agree a time for a statement, the minister will be available to outline what the Scottish Government is doing to tackle this crisis.”

He added: “We recognise that this is clearly our other public health emergency. The 2020 drug death figures are a stark reminder of the need to do more to save and improve lives. We want to see more people able to access the treatment that is right for them at the time they want it. That means on the same day in most cases. And it means a wider range of treatment offers, including residential rehabilitation, must be available everywhere at any given time.”

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that despite the record number of drugs deaths, one vital organisation in Dundee – once dubbed “Scotland’s drug death capital” – is being forced to make staff redundant.

It was reported on Sunday that 12 workers at Housing First Pathfinder have been served redundancy notices as Scottish Government funding is ending in September.

The scheme had been championed by Nicola Sturgeon when she announced £6.5m funding in 2018, claiming it was “key” to helping people with “complex needs” rebuild their lives. It gives rough sleepers, many of whom have severe addiction issues, a home and access to drug, alcohol and mental health care services.

It was reported that four existing council housing staff have been told to take over the roles in an effort to “mainstream” the service.

Labour MSP Michael Marra, a former Dundee councillor, said: “As Scotland’s drug death figures reach the highest ever, with Dundee as the epicentre, it is unfathomable that vital support services are being cut. These lifeline services are key to rehabilitation and ensuring those in recovery are supported.

“The First Minister must intervene to save this programme, which she herself championed.”

The Scottish Government said: “We have been fully assured by Dundee City Council that Housing First will continue.”

Dundee City Council said the service was being “mainstreamed following the planned ending of the Housing First Pathfinder programme on September 30, 2021.”

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