Calls have been made for Scotland’s public health minister to resign after the country again saw another record-high year for drug-related deaths.
Last year saw 1,264 deaths which involved substance use – a higher rate than across all EU countries and more than three times the UK as a whole.
The National Records of Scotland (NRS) figures for 2019 show a 6% increase on 2018 – up from 1,187 – when Scotland also recorded the highest rate across Europe.
The rate of increase has slowed significantly since the 27% rise between 2017 and 2018.
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon called on public health minister Joe FitzPatrick to step down in light of the new figures.
She said: “The public needs to have confidence in the public health minister to lead us out of this human rights tragedy – these shocking statistics and his woeful response give us none.
“Joe FitzPatrick has tried his best but it’s not good enough. It’s time to make way for fresh leadership.”
Her call was echoed by party colleague Neil Findlay MSP, who also described First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to leave the Holyrood chamber before Mr Fitzpatrick’s ministerial statement as a “disgrace”.
Heroin and morphine were involved in more deaths than in any previous year – at 645 – and more than half of the total.
Methadone was involved in 560 fatalities, benzodiazepines of any form – street and prescription – in 999, and cocaine in 365.
A total of 404 deaths were in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area, 163 in Lanarkshire, 155 in Lothian, 118 in Tayside and 108 in Ayrshire and Arran.
Nearly 70% of the deaths were men and more than two-thirds were aged between 35 and 54.
Opposition politicians and charities called for more action to stop the deaths, saying each could have been prevented.
Speaking at Holyrood, Mr FitzPatrick said: “I think in the last two years we have taken considerable action to improve the service, the idea that I am not listening is just not factual.
“It is one of the things I have taken great care to do since being appointed to this post, to listen to people across Scotland with lived and living experience and those on the front line in this public health emergency.”
In response to calls for him to quit, he said: “I have heard her views, fortunately I have great confidence that across Scotland many of the people who are working at the front end of this public health emergency take a different view and continue to work really hard to turn this around.
“It’s easy to call names, it is easy to personalise, I am disappointed it has come from Monica Lennon.
“While I expected it from others in her benches, I don’t generally expect it from her.
“These figures are a tragedy, I think I will leave it there.”
Earlier, he said the Scottish Government is doing “everything in its powers” to tackle rising drug deaths.
Mr FitzPatrick has also committed to continue to urge the UK Government to change the law to legalise supervised drug consumption facilities or devolve the necessary powers to Scotland, something which it has repeatedly ruled out.
Speaking in the Commons, SNP MP Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) said: “The UK Government says Scotland will not be permitted, not allowed, not trusted to take further action to prevent the deaths of our citizens.
“Scotland accepts responsibility in the areas where we can act and we know we must do more, though we do this with our hands tied behind our back.”
UK Government Minister Kit Malthouse said: “I am deeply concerned about the number of drug related deaths in Scotland.
“I am committed to working with the devolved administration in Scotland to tackle drug misuse and this year I held a UK-wide Drugs Summit in Glasgow, bringing together a range of experts.
“We will continue to support programmes which reduce the health-related harms of drugs, such as tightening controls on dangerous substances and widening the availability of treatments which prevent overdose deaths.”