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David Stewart MSP says Highland patients face a 12-week wait to access cancer screening services once restrictions are lifted after coronavirus lockdown

By Ian Duncan

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MSP David Stewart.
MSP David Stewart.

Cancer screening services could take 12 weeks to restart prior to a decision to reopen the service according to NHS Highland.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart had written to the health authority's chief executive, Paul Hawkins, on behalf of a health professional who was concerned patients were not receiving access to screening.

Mr Stewart said that during the coronavirus pandemic there had rightly been a focus on the need to protect the most vulnerable from catching the virus and saving lives.

He said: “Cancer, however, hasn’t gone away and remains Scotland’s biggest killer. I want to see non-Covid-19 services restored with clear strategies for how patients will be protected and how the backlog of demand will be addressed. Providing cancer services must be an absolute priority.

“Scottish Labour supports Cancer Research UK’s campaign for Covid-19-free safe spaces for cancer services and the Scottish Government must work constructively with health boards to achieve this within the existing NHS estate, while also ensuring staffing can be maintained at appropriate levels.

“As lockdown is eased we cannot return to business as usual. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the NHS was already in crisis due to long waiting times, resource pressures and unsustainable vacancy levels.

“In the meantime, I echo the health authority’s plea for anyone having worrying symptoms to contact their GP.”

Mr Hawkins told the MSP that National Services Scotland (NSS) which delivers services critical to frontline patient care to support NHS Scotland, paused breast, bowel and cervical screening programmes on March 30 due to coronavirus.

NSS was consulting with national and local officials to assess how these services could be safely recommenced, and this included looking at the risks, patients’ willingness to attend and infection prevention and control measures.

Mr Hawkins said: “In the case of breast screening, for example, decisions will also need to be made regarding the scheduling of women to be invited, eg whether to start from where the pause was implemented, or restart the programme where the service should have been screening if no pause was implemented.

“The issues are therefore significant and complex, with NSS colleagues currently advising that a 12-week period prior to any restart will potentially be required.”

NHS Highland is advising patients to attend their GPs should they have any worrying symptoms.

In recent weeks the number of referrals being received by GPs has been very close to the numbers being seen before the coronavirus outbreak.

Cancer Research says up to 1.2 million invitations to take part in bowel, breast and cervical screening have not been sent out nationally during the lockdown.

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