Waiting Times Debate and speech – 15.05.19

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab):

This has been an excellent debate on a vital issue, and I thank members from across the chamber for their insightful, knowledgeable and strongly felt contributions. I was particularly shocked by the contribution from George Adam, in which he said that he never showboats in the chamber—well, that is news to me. [Laughter.]

However, I thank the Liberal Democrats for using their initiative to secure this afternoon’s debate. We all know that waiting times are difficult. When a patient is suffering from an illness or an injury, any time between cause or diagnosis and treatment is unwanted; it prolongs the pain as well as adding additional stress to mental and physical wellbeing.

Members such as Alex Cole-Hamilton, Monica Lennon, James Kelly, Alison Johnstone and Miles Briggs have illustrated that perfectly by quoting dissatisfied constituents, who felt let down by the system. As we have heard, that system was put in place by the Patient Rights (Scotland) Act 2011, which guaranteed a 12-week treatment time. It allowed hospitals and boards to manage expectations, and for patients to have a known timeframe.

However, we cannot forget that waiting times are not just simple facts and figures—behind every delay in getting an operation or seeing a consultant there is a person, who often has anxieties, pain and stress. I will also give an example. I remember when, many years ago, the then 80-year-old Inverness writer, the late Bette McArdle, came to see me because she had been told that she had to wait 11 months for a relatively simple cataract operation. She said:

“It is vital that we octogenarians are able to lead independent lives and still contribute to society. And it has to be remembered that many are still caring for a partner or family member. Without the basic support of maintaining adequate eyesight we can rapidly become even more dependent on the NHS and care services and cost the state.”

Every statistic holds similar stories. Although I cannot fault NHS Highland for trying to clear the backlog and reduce the waiting time in this individual case, it is concerning that such procedures often have to be outsourced to private companies and other boards at great cost.

There are a number of worrying statistics in Audit Scotland’s 2018 report: not one board was meeting all the key national performance targets; only three boards met the 62-day target for cancer referrals; the number of people on waiting lists continued to increase; and more people waited longer for out-patient and in-patient appointments. A key problem that was identified in the Audit Scotland report was the widespread difficulty in meeting demand, and the impact that that is having on waiting times.

Many members have made the point, which I would like to echo, that front-line NHS staff work tirelessly to try to ensure that staffing issues, lack of resources and underfunding do not compromise patient care. However, they do so in the face of growing pressure. Although it is important that we acknowledge the hard work that is being put in under tough circumstances by NHS staff across the board, that should not prevent us from expressing concerns.

I also want to flag up, as I have done many times before in the chamber, the issue of life expectancy and the difference between those from deprived areas and those from more affluent areas.

I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude. As we know, the NHS turned 70 last year, and we still have to fight to protect it. Nye Bevan, who is one of my heroes, said:

“discontent arises from a knowledge of the possible, as contrasted with the actual.”

Such debates are frustrating, because we can do much better. This debate has shone a bright light into the dark areas of the NHS. We have a legally binding 12-week treatment time guarantee. Let us try to achieve it.