Scottish Government urged to address drug taskforce future amid disbanding fears from resignations

The Scottish Government is facing calls to urgently address the future of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce amid fears it may have to be disbanded.

The body was set up in 2019 to bring a quick turnaround to spiralling drug deaths but the numbers have continued to rise.

The Daily Record told yesterday how the DDTF’s chair Professor Catriona Matheson and vice chair Neil Richardson quit, sending a scathing resignation letter to drugs policy minister Angela Constance after she urged them to move faster.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who previously accused the Taskforce of moving at a “snail’s pace” in Parliament, has urged the Scottish Government to quickly clarify whether the DDTF will seek new leadership or be disbanded altogether.

The Taskforce was accused in Parliament of moving at a "snail's pace".
The Taskforce was accused in Parliament of moving at a “snail’s pace”.

Lennon, chair of Holyrood’s Cross Party Committee on Drug and Alcohol Misuse, said: “These resignations are a worrying indication that all is not well behind the scenes.

“Now that the First Minister has admitted her government took its eye off the ball on drugs, it’s time to take stock and be honest about the role of the Drug Deaths Taskforce.

“There have been clear tensions from the outset over timescales. It now seems very unclear as to who might lead the group or if it will be able to carry on. The minister should clarify the situation as soon as possible.”

The Record told yesterday how the Taskforce bosses wrote an acrimonious letter that accused the Scottish Government of rushing them, putting public safety at risk and jeopardising the success of their work.

Their joint letter to Angela Constance states: “We have always understood the need for urgency in our work but we feel the current demand for speed is counterproductive and driven by other factors such as meeting targets, rather than achieving the sustainable change that evidence shows is more effective.”

The resignation letter by Catriona Matheson and Neil Richardson pulls no punches.
The resignation letter by Catriona Matheson and Neil Richardson pulls no punches.

They add: “Rushing the final stages of this programme, and during a further covid surge, jeopardises its success.”

Scottish Lib Dems health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton added: “A taskforce can only be as effective as the minister it reports to.

“When Public Health minister Joe FitzPatrick was forced out and replaced by Angela Constance 12 months ago, it was only a matter of time before its output and performance was questioned.”

Scotland’s drug deaths, by miles the worst in Europe, reached 1,339 in 2020 but shows signs of levelling off in most recent estimated figures.

Angela Constance repeated her assertion that all partners in the national mission to combat drug deaths have to move further and faster.

Monica Lennon MSP
Monica Lennon MSP

She said: “There are lives at stake here and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be asking for recommendations sooner rather than later, so that we can get on, in 2022, and make those changes where they matter most – on the ground in our services.”

She added: “Evidence is, of course, crucially important.”

Constance has stated that the Taskforce was due to wrap up its business by the end of next year.

Last night she said she would discuss the situation with other Taskforce members and make a statement to Parliament in the New Year on future arrangements.

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