THE Scottish Government has been accused of giving itself permission "to keep on breaking its own law" on waiting times after it unveiled plans to achieve its existing cancer treatment target by Spring 2021.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman announced that a total of £850 million would be invested over the next 30 months to drive down waiting times for cancer diagnosis and treatment, outpatient appointments and day case procedures.

Ms Freeman said the initiative would deliver a "sustainable and significant step change in waiting times".

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She said this will include £17m being invested in Forth Valley Royal Hospital, to deliver two theatres by October 2019, bringing additional capacity for 1,500 more joint replacements or equivalent procedures.

By June 2019, the hospital will have a second MRI scanner to allow 8,000 more diagnostic examinations per year.

There will also be work to build on the significant additional recruitment and training which is ongoing across the medical, nursing and the allied health professions.

She added that a £4m investment will increase domestic and international recruitment, focusing on GP, nursing, midwifery and consultant specialties with the highest vacancy rates.

In a statement to parliament, Ms Freeman acknowledged that current waiting times performance falls short of her expectations, but rejected reports that targets would be scrapped.

She said: "I have no intention of withdrawing the targets and every intention of meeting them."

It follows the deteriorating performance against the 62-day cancer target in particular, which expects that 95% of patients found to have cancer will begin their first treatment within 62 days of referral for tests and scans.

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This has not been achieved since October 2012, and in April to June this year compliance dipped to a new low of 84.6%.

Shortages of radiologists and an increasing number of patients being referred for tests as the population ages have been blamed, while the introduction of a simpler home screening kit for bowel cancer in Scotland last year is also understood to have increased pressure on diagnostic services.

The Government's new Waiting Times Improvement Plan has set out measures to reverse the decline, with a new pledge that the 62-day cancer target will be achieved by Spring 2021.

It has also set out fresh deadlines on other key targets, including a pledge that 100% of patients waiting for an elective inpatient or day case procedure and 95% waiting for an outpatient appointment will wait no longer than 12 weeks by Spring 2021.

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Although the SNP introduced the Treatment Time Guarantee in 2012, giving patients a legal right to treatment within 12 weeks for conditions such as knee and eye operations, recent figures revealed the guarantee had been broken 153,170 times in the past six years.

Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health, Monica Lennon said ministers had simply shifted the goalposts.

She said: "It appears the Government’s grand plan on waiting times is to keep on breaking its own law until 2021. This is astonishing.”

Meanwhile doctors leaders at the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland branded the plan a "missed opportunity".

Chair Dr Lewis Morrison said that despite "repeated warnings from doctors and other health professionals", the Scottish Government had "simply reaffirmed its commitment to the current politically set targets that are putting so much pressure on NHS staff and services".

He said: "There are real dangers that inappropriate targets can skew clinical decisions and simply carrying on with existing approaches will do nothing to alleviate the extreme pressure that doctors and other NHS staff are working under."

Dr Morrison also cautioned that there was "little of substance" in the plan detailing how the Scottish Government would tackle medical recruitment and retention problems across the health service.

Janice Preston, head of Macmillan Services in Scotland, said: “Waiting to begin cancer treatment is an incredibly stressful time.

“While we welcome the Scottish Government’s promised action plan and investment to address this complex issue, every week that passes sees people waiting too long for treatment and we want to see improvement made sooner.”

Ms Freeman said: “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 specialties – but the drive for improvement will be national in scope. Achieving this will require a focused, intense programme of work that accelerates action that is already underway.”