Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce bosses resign in fury after being told to ‘hurry up’ by SNP minister

The chair and vice chair of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce have resigned after being told to get a move on.

The Record can reveal that Professor Catriona Matheson and deputy Neil Richardson mutinied after being ordered by Scotland’s drugs minister Angela Constance to produce a blueprint for urgent reform by the summer – months earlier than first laid down.

The bombshell by Constance was conveyed earlier this month – and the two bosses immediately jumped ship, drafting a scathing joint letter two days before Christmas that denounced the way they were being hustled along.

It is now thought the Taskforce – which had been accused in Parliament of moving at a “snail’s pace” could be reshaped or even disbanded in the wake of the fracas.

The resignation letter claims the Taskforce was being forced to act fast in implementing strategies without assurances they were safe.

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

It says: “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.

“We feel ever further and irretrievably distanced from the remit and purpose of the original Terms of Reference, and the spirit of trust, challenge, and collaboration behind it, on which our participation was invited at the outset.

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“We remain committed to saving lives being lost to drugs, through the vigorous and urgent synthesis and dissemination of evidenced based best practice – putting evidence into action as soon as we are confident it is safe and effective to do so.”

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”.

The Taskforce was specifically formed in July 2019 as an emergency response to demands in the Daily Record for a public inquiry into spiralling drug deaths, which stood at 1,187 for the year.

But there has been growing tension between the Scottish Government’s desire to move fast to bring down the annual numbers, which rose to 1,339 for 2020. The latest quarterly figures do, however, show a small decrease.

Professor Matheson has maintained that the Taskforce’s work should only be judged after around three years and that the programme they were working to was over five years.

Her letter slams the drugs minister, blasting: “We are dismayed that a major work programme – our frontline delivery innovation initiatives for multiple complex needs – has been omitted in your correspondence.

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

“We will continue to drive initiatives to reduce drug related deaths in our respective roles. However without a shared conviction with Scottish Government of the importance of evidence based priority and progress we can no longer lead the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce.”

Joe FitzPatrick - who was later sacked - hammered home the need to move fast when he launched the Drug Deaths Taskforce in March , 2019.
Joe FitzPatrick – who was later sacked – hammered home the need to move fast when he launched the Drug Deaths Taskforce in March , 2019.

At the formation of the Taskforce in August 2019, then health minister Joe FitzPatrick wrote in the Daily Record: “I recognise that some people believe a public inquiry would help deliver change. Sadly, these inquiries can often take years to conclude their work.

“I want us to move considerably faster. That is why I will soon be convening an expert group to examine the key drivers of drug deaths and advise on what further changes either in practice or in the law could help save lives and reduce harm.”

The need for speed was emphasised by Constance, whose frustration was clear in letters to the Taskforce, which was due to run until the end of 2022 at least.

In response to the resignation letter, sent on Christmas Eve, Constance wrote back, saying: “I note that you feel the remit and purpose of the original Terms of Reference of the DDTF has changed since you became Chair and Vice Chair.

“Of course there has been significant change since the DDTF was established. This includes not only my appointment as dedicated Minister for Drugs Policy in December 2020, but the launch of the National Mission in January and the establishment of the Implementation Group shortly thereafter.”

She adds: “I would reiterate – and as I communicated to DDTF members – that the transition following the set of final recommendations from the Taskforce will need to be managed carefully.

“I also understand that the Taskforce has oversight of projects that will not have ended by July or December 2022. This is why my officials are considering the purpose, remit and governance of all the groups that are part of the National Mission and how they dovetail with the Taskforce’s current remit and new timescales.”

Drugs Minister Angela Constance
Drugs Minister Angela Constance

In response to a query from the Daily Record, Constance said: “As we come to the end of the first year of our National Mission, it is vital that we accelerate our existing work, and our focus on delivery and implementation.

“Recent quarterly statistics for suspected drug-related deaths showed a slight decrease, but it is clear there is still an urgent need to implement changes that will make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives.”

When First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a £250 million drugs war chest in January this year, she finally accepted the extent of the emergency and admitted the Scottish Government had moved too slowly.

Key thrusts of its work have been on long term measures, like reducing stigma against drug users and establishing progressive Medication Assisted Treatment Standards.

Professor Matheson previously admitted that tackling the scourge of street Valium has been her most challenging problem, which has given her sleepless nights.

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