Scotland’s public health minister quits after drug-related deaths rise for sixth year

The nation suffered more drug fatalities per capita than any country in Europe, and even an opioid-stricken United States, in 2019 – with figures published on Tuesday by National Records Scotland showing 1,264 people lost their lives last year after using drugs.

Scotland’s public health minister Joe FitzPatrick has resigned after failing to curb drug-related deaths, which have risen for the sixth consecutive year to an all-time high.

This is more than double the number of deaths in 2014, at a rate more than three times that of the UK as a whole.

Amid a fierce public backlash over Holyrood’s failure to stem the crisis, Mr FitzPatrick – who has served in the position since June 2018 – ceded to calls for his resignation on Friday night after speaking with first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

“It has been the privilege of my life to serve in the Scottish government and, during that time, the most heart-breaking and difficult problems I have faced as public health minister is the harms and deaths caused by drug use,” Mr FitzPatrick said.

“As the minister responsible for this area I, ultimately, take my responsibility.

“It is clear that my presence as a minister will become a distraction, when we should be focused on achieving the change we need to save lives. There is nothing I can express that will ease the loss that so many families have felt due to a death from drugs use.

“I can only say how sorry I am for their loss, and that hearing the experiences of the families and the recovery communities will never leave me.”

The Scottish government declared the crisis a public health emergency in 2018 and established a drugs deaths taskforce in 2019, which this year received £4m in government funding.

But critics have alleged that this funding was merely taken from previous budgets for alcohol and drug partnerships, while the taskforce was accused of failing to meet for four months earlier this year.

And the SNP has repeatedly sought to lay the blame for the apparent inaction at the feet of Westminster, which controls drug policy and has indeed blocked recommended salves such as safer drug consumption facilities and the decriminalisation of drugs.

However, there are still a number of public health interventions available to Holyrood under its devolved powers, which are yet to be explored, such as allowing quicker access to opiate substitution treatments.

Experts have warned deaths may well continue to increase in 2020 despite some new measures, such as Glasgow’s new heroin assisted treatment centre and increased provision of the lifesaving overdose drug, naloxone.

After leaving Holyrood’s debating chamber as a statement on the latest death statistics began on Tuesday, while devolved leaders mulled Christmas coronavirus restrictions, Ms Sturgeon on Thursday addressed criticism of her government’s handling of the crisis head-on, describing the deaths as “completely unacceptable”.

“It’s on us to show we are on top of the drugs crisis and that’s what I’m determined we do,” she wrote in response to a critical Daily Record article on Friday alleging she had “taken her eye off Scotland’s other epidemic”, which she called “fair”.

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