Scottish public health minister resigns after record drugs deaths

18 December 2020, 19:26

Public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick has resigned after record numbers of drugs-related deaths in Scotland
Public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick has resigned after record numbers of drugs-related deaths in Scotland. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Scotland's public health minister has resigned after sustained pressure from political opponents over record drug death figures.

A motion of no confidence was lodged against Joe Fitzpatrick in the Scottish Parliament on Friday, but the minister stepped down from his role before it could be voted on.

In a statement, he said: "I spoke with the First Minster today and agreed that I should leave government.

"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.

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

Read more: Boris Johnson blames rising Scottish drug deaths on SNP 'failures'

"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."

Angela Constance has been appointed as a dedicated minister for drugs policy, while a new public health minister will be nominated on Monday.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon added: "I thank Joe for his work as a minister and the service he has given to Government over the last eight years, firstly as Minister for Parliamentary Business and then as Minister for Public Health."

Scotland has the highest drugs-related deaths in Europe
Scotland has the highest drugs-related deaths in Europe. Picture: PA Images

Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for him to step aside after yearly drug death figures were released earlier this week, showing a rise to a new record high of 1,264 in 2019 - beating the country's own record as highest in Europe.

Much of the issue is believed to be caused by Benzodiazepines such as Diazepam.

Labour's Monica Lennon submitted the motion of no confidence in the minister on Friday, citing "his inadequate response to tackling drug-related deaths".

The Scottish Liberal Democrats backed the motion with likely support from the Scottish Greens, while the Conservatives said they will work with anyone who is "serious" about dealing with the issue.

Arguing for Mr Fitzpatrick's resignation, Ms Lennon said: "Under Joe FitzPatrick's watch, Scotland's drug deaths crisis is becoming more and more tragic by the day.

"It's clear that the Public Health Minister does not carry the confidence of the recovery community and those who are desperately fighting for access to treatment and rehab services.

"Regardless of what MSPs think of Joe as a person, that's what matters most."

Nicola Sturgeon has come under fire for the alleged failures of her SNP colleague
Nicola Sturgeon has come under fire for the alleged failures of her SNP colleague. Picture: PA Images

A Scottish Conservative spokesman attacked the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon's "disastrous drugs strategy".

"We urged the First Minister to agree to our proposed £20 million funding for rehabilitation but got no commitment," a statement said.

"All focus should be on the urgent public health crisis of Scotland's drugs deaths epidemic.

"We remain willing to work with anyone who is sincere about dealing with this issue."

On Thursday, Ms Sturgeon described the drug death figures as "completely unacceptable" and admitted the Scottish Government needed to do more to tackle the issue.

She is due to report to MSPs again in January after she meets a Scottish Government taskforce which is considering a number of public health interventions.

At First Minister's Questions, she pledged to "work with" Mr FitzPatrick to improve the situation as opposition parties accused her government of cutting its funding for rehabilitation beds.