SCOTLAND’S busiest needle exchange for injecting drug users is to be shut despite warnings that the move could “exacerbate” the worst HIV outbreak in decades.

The service provided by Boots in Glasgow's Central Station is being forced to close by Network Rail, which owns the station, at the end of this week, despite pleas to retain it from the NHS, the police, the Scottish Drugs Forum and the convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Drugs and Alcohol Misuse.

It is understood Network Rail took fright after an addict overdosed in the station and cleaning staff discovered discarded drug paraphernalia in toilets and a baby-changing area.

The exchange, which is open from 7am until midnight, has provided more than 40,000 sets of clean injecting equipment since it opened in July 2016 following a spike in the number of HIV cases in Glasgow – from a consistent average of 10 cases a year to 90 new cases since 2015.

An internal NHS report seen by the Sunday Herald revealed that crunch talks were held between Network Rail, Boots and NHS staff and Boots were ordered to stop the service “with immediate effect”, but the contract required a three-month notice period so the service was given a reprieve until the end of September.

The report notes that the service had conducted 9583 transactions to 1940 people and has provided 41,238 sets of clean injecting equipment and 20,520 sheets of foil – used to promote transition from injecting to less risky inhalation – since it opened last July.

It states: “The service has become the busiest in Glasgow and in Scotland – possibly in the UK – and provides around 1,000 transactions per month. This is a clear indication that it is meeting a significant public health need and filling a gap in existing provision that was originally identified in the public health needs assessment.”

Scottish Drugs Forum Chief Executive David Liddell said the decision to close the exchange “would be bad at any time but in the middle of an active outbreak of HIV it just seems incredible”.

He added: “I don’t know how Network Rail think this is in the public interest to do this. It also begs the question about what their accountability is as a publicly-funded agency.”

Liddell said the extended opening hours offered by the Central Station service is “crucial” to limit the number of HIV cases among “very vulnerable” injecting drug users. “You’re talking about a population who are in desperate circumstances,” he said.

He suggested fears that drug users could be a “public nuisance” may have led to Network Rail’s decision.

However, the internal NHS report revealed a small number of incidents in the station were connected to the needle exchange. It stated: “Since its introduction in July 2016, with exception of the one serious overdose incident, there have been 10 reports of minor incidents within the station, relating mainly to drug litter.”

Liddell said: “Potentially, it’s just a population they (Network Rail) would prefer not to have in the station. You can understand a bit of that but the argument is looking at the wider public interest and the consequences of this action, which could exacerbate the HIV outbreak. We would like Network Rail to have another look at this decision.”

The co-chairs of the Scottish Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus Prevention Leads Group, Dr Andrew McAuley and Leon Wylie, issued a joint statement which said closing the facility “could not come at a worse time with many potential negative outcomes, including a possible widening of the HIV outbreak.”

Former police officer John Finnie MSP, who is convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Drug and Alcohol Misuse, has also called for a “rethink of this ill-thought-through enforced closure.”

Finnie added: “That the service deals with around 1,000 people per month and has only had one significant incident since 2016 is testimony to the professionalism of the staff involved. Removal of this facility would be an extremely retrograde step not only for individual service users but also the wider community.”

A spokesman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said: “At a time when Glasgow is experiencing an HIV outbreak amongst injecting drug users it is especially important that they have access to clean injecting equipment. It is disappointing that after protracted discussions to set up the injecting equipment provision (IEP) service in Central Station that Network Rail is forcing the closure of the service despite it being supported by the NHS, Glasgow City Council, Police Scotland and the pharmacy.”

A spokeswoman for Boots said: “We believe that community pharmacies are an essential part of the drug treatment system, in particular the needle exchange service, as it allows the patient opportunity to also have a conversation or counselling with a pharmacist.”

A spokesman for Network Rail confirmed that it is ending participation in the scheme following “a number of incidents”. He said: “Glasgow Central station is used by over 100,000 visitors each day and we have a responsibility to provide as safe an environment as possible for those passengers and our staff.”

HIV outbreak has led to call for static needle exchanges and safer injecting facility

A sharp increase in the number of HIV cases among drug injectors in Glasgow have led to calls for dedicated needle exchanges and a supervised safer injecting facility to be set up in the city.

The NHS has estimated that it costs £360,000 to treat a patient with HIV over the course of their life, meaning the new cases will cost the health service more than £30m.

Andrew Horne, Director of Addaction Scotland, said recently static needle exchanges are the “optimum place for engaging people about treatment”. High street chemists currently provide the service.

David Liddell of the Scottish Drugs Forum has said there is an urgent need to set up the safer drug consumption facility in Glasgow which was agreed in principle by the health board, city council and police in October 2016.