SERIOUS concerns have been raised that more lives could be put at risk because a “crucial” toxicology service providing information about drug deaths is to be terminated after providers failed to reach a contractual agreement with the Crown Office.

Glasgow University’s forensic toxicology service currently provides reports to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) for about 90% of drug deaths in Scotland. But now it has emerged that negotiations over contracts to continue the service failed last month. The service is expected to be terminated early next year.

This Tuesday the latest Scottish statistics are expected to show up to 1200 people died of drug overdoses in 2018. Drug experts are particularly worried by the timing of the service closure, which comes when record levels of Scottish drug deaths are amongst the highest in Europe.

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They claim that without the early warning system it provides, more lives could be put at risk and say there is no obvious replacement for the considerable expertise and knowledge built up by current staff.

While in Scotland toxicology results are made available within a couple of weeks, in England delays of six months are commonplace. One source said: “It is not yet widely known who is picking up the service and those close to it are adamant that nobody else in Scotland has the capacity to offer the same knowledge and expertise. It will be a huge loss and there is considerable concern.”

Staff working for the service – which also offers testing and early warnings based on drugs of concern picked up by NHS Scotland and was due to take part in monitoring for the new heroin-assisted treatment programme, due to be introduced in coming months – are reportedly facing redundancies.

Neither Glasgow University nor the Crown Office were willing to disclose the reasons an extension to the contract could not be agreed when contacted by the Sunday National. However David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said the decision appeared to have been based on Glasgow University finances.

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He added: “We are very concerned at the decision of the University of Glasgow to withdraw from the contract with COPFS to supply forensic toxicology services. This service is crucial to our understanding of fatal overdose deaths and aids our responses to preventing future deaths.

“It takes no account of the wider public interest in terms of delivering this service. We would urge the university to urgently reconsider this decision and we would hope the Scottish Government would put appropriate pressure on the university.”

The National:

Dr Roy Robertson, a GP and professor of addiction medicine at the University of Edinburgh, pictured, said: “I have heard about the issues with the forensic lab in Glasgow and am extremely concerned.”

Robertson – who worked in Edinburgh’s Muirhouse for 40 years and experienced the heroin epidemic of the 1980s – added: “I hope that there will be some resolution of the problem and have been trying to draw attention to the difficulties we might face if the lab closes.”

Sharon Webster, founder of Recovery Dundee, said that it is essential for families of those who had lost someone due to a drug overdose that Scotland had a rapid and reliable toxicology service. She added: “Heartbroken families are looking for answers and such important information helps give them clarity. Without this the trends and dangers in changing drug cultures could be missed and that is a huge red flag.”

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Along with many others supporting people with addiction issues into recovery, she said that it was still far too difficult to get help from essential services, with waiting lists for several months common place, and an almost total lack of social, emotional and psychological treatment offered in many cases. In November last year the Scottish Government released its updated drugs strategy, Rights, Respect and Recovery, but an implementation plan is still not in place.

Webster claimed those who were unable to access suitable treatment “are at risk of overdose and dying” as a result. “These conversations have been happening since 2013,” she said. “There is a lot of talk but really nothing is being done.”

A spokesman for COPFS said: “Following detailed negotiations, COPFS and the University of Glasgow have been unable to agree an extension to the provision of toxicology services and the current contract will end in early 2020.” It is “actively engaging with alternative providers for these essential services”, it added.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the University of Glasgow claimed it was unable to agree the extension to the contract after “a lengthy negotiation”.

“We are working closely with the Crown Office to ensure minimal disruption from any change to provider,” she added. “We are providing support and as much information as we can to colleagues who work in this area.”

Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick gave evidence to the Scottish Affair committee’s inquiry into problem drug use last week. He told MPs that he hoped the increased number of deaths would be “a wake-up call”.

A Scottish Government Spokesperson said: “Toxicology services play a vital role within our justice system. We are assured by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service that it is actively engaging with alternative providers so that there will be minimal, if any, disruption to these services in the event of the contract with University of Glasgow not continuing.”