ALMOST a fifth of suspected cancer patients in Scotland are waiting longer than they should for their first treatment, with MSPs branding the new figures “a scandal”.

A leading cancer charity blamed staff shortages and said it showed NHS Scotland was “under immense strain”.

The Scottish Tories said it marked a "dismal" first anniversary for SNP health secretary Jeane Freeman, who marks a year in post tomorrow.

Official statistics showed only 81.4 per cent of patients urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer were treated within the 62-day target in the first three months of 2019.

The target is for 95% to be treated within this period.

The treatment rate was the joint lowest on record since the target was introduced in 2012.

It was down on the 82.7% figure for the previous quarter, and the same as the record low for the three months to September 2018.

A year ago, the treatment rate was 85% within 62 days.

Only three of Scotland’s 14 regional health boards met the 62-day target between January and March this year: NHS Lanarkshire, NHS Orkney and NHS Shetland.

However the figures were better for the 31-day target from the decision to treat the first cancer treatment, which also has a 95% target.

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In the first quarter of the year, 94.9% of patients were treated within 31 days, the same rate as the previous quarter, and up on the 93.5% rate a year ago.

Scottish Tory Miles Briggs said: “Jeane Freeman is a year into the job and things have only got worse. It’s been a year of failure.

“People who have been urgently referred for cancer treatment have never waited longer for their treatment to begin – that’s an abysmal reflection on her tenure.

“These are people whose chances of survival slip as every day goes by – yet this nationalist government is sitting on its hands.

“For 12 years we have had an SNP government obsessed with nothing by independence – and our NHS has suffered as a result.”

Scottish LibDem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said the ISD Scotland stats were a disgrace.

He said: “The Scottish Government’s record on cancer waits is a national scandal. When people get diagnosed with cancer it’s a distressing time for them, and those close to them.

“You’d expect on the spot action but these statistics show that expectation is far from reality.

“No one should be forced to endure such a prolonged period of anxiety and long waits could jeopardise patients’ chance of recovery.

“The Scottish Government set out its plan to meet this target eight months ago, but since then performance has got worse and worse.

“Ministers have a responsibility to properly resource the NHS, both in terms of funding and staff.”

Scottish Labour said the cancer waits were the latest in a string of failures on Ms Freeman's watch that included missed A&E times, the Waiting Time Guarantee not being met, and persistent staff vacancies.

MSP Monica Lennon said: "Despite all the hype around Jeane Freeman’s appointment, Scotland’s NHS is going backwards during her first year in charge of Scotland’s health service.”

“Staff are overworked and patients are not getting the care they deserve.

"It is time for the Health Secretary to stop the spin and listen to NHS staff and people across Scotland who urgently want our health and social care services to be properly resourced.”

Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “Many patients are still waiting too long after an urgent GP referral to get a diagnosis and start treatment. For anyone going through tests and treatment for cancer, it’s an incredibly anxious time and delays can make that worse.

“Diagnosing more cancers at an early stage will mean more people need to be referred for tests. But these figures suggest that, despite working harder than ever, there aren’t enough staff to deliver the amount of tests required now or in the future.

“Every quarter figures emerge that show the NHS continues to be under immense strain.

“To have any chance of meeting its ambitions to diagnose cancer earlier, the Scottish Government needs to invest to ensure we have enough key staff now and in the future.”

Ms Freeman admitted patients were waiting too long for cancer care.

She said: "The number of patients being treated within these targets has increased on the same time last year, and it’s welcome that once a decision to treat has been reached, patients in Scotland wait on average five days for first treatment.

“However, these figures show that some patients are continuing to wait too long from urgent suspicion of cancer referral to treatment. I have been clear with Health Boards that cancer patients must be prioritised.

“Our revised Endoscopy Action Plan, backed by £6 million, aims to ensure new patients are seen within six weeks for key endoscopic tests. The most urgent patients, including those suspected with cancer, will be prioritised and seen between two to three weeks.

“This builds on our £850m Waiting Times Improvement Plan, which aims to drive down waiting times across all specialties, including cancer diagnosis and treatment, outpatient appointments and day case procedures.

“We are committed to significantly improving the experience of patients waiting to be seen or treated.”