A GRIEVING mother has been told that she will face an “unbearable” nine-month wait for a toxicology report on her daughter’s death because of a backlog facing the service caused by a dispute over funding.

The woman, who does not want to be identified, lost her daughter in October and is awaiting the results of forensic tests – which should be available within 16 weeks or less – that will show whether drugs were implicated in her death.

But after two letters warning of delays, the woman received a phone call last week telling her she should not expect the results until July this year.

It comes following a dispute between Glasgow University’s forensic toxicology service and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). It is understood the row came about after the Crown questioned the cost of the service and it quickly escalated.

The National: Crown Office

Last July the Sunday National learned that negotiations over contracts to continue the service had failed. Since then – with serious concerns raised by experts, politicians and in the media – an extension until September 2020 has been agreed.

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An additional £300,000 was allocated by the Crown in December to help Glasgow University recruit additional staff and buy new equipment to help clear the waiting cases.

However, it is claimed it is too little too late, with some suggesting the backlog is now so substantial it will be “almost impossible” to clear. Meanwhile, families are facing waits of up to nine months and being issued with temporary death certificates.

Labour MSP Monica Lennon called for immediate action and said the Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC should consider resigning if the situation caused a delay to annual drug death figures for 2019 due to be reported in July.

The National: Monica Lennon

Concerns that this may happen were raised by the Scottish Drugs Forum last week. One source later told the Sunday National it may be 2021 before they are made available.

Police Scotland figures for the first half of 2019 suggest there may be as many as 684 drug-related deaths. In 2018 there were a record 1187.

The woman, who is being supported by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (SFAAD), said: “I lost my daughter in October 2019 and have been contacted by the PF’s office twice by letter to apologise that the results of her toxicology report would take longer to come back.

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“I received a phone call from the Procurator Fiscal’s office this week to inform me that it will be July 2020 before the results are available – that will be nine months after losing my daughter.

“This is an unbearable amount of time to wait as it stops us moving forward and finding any peace. I hardly sleep and when I do I am bothered by thoughts of getting the results back and my mind races

“When we get these results it will be like opening a wound and taking us back to October and all the pain you feel at the very start of your grief.”

Justina Murray, chief executive of SFAAD, said the situation – which will also be facing other families – was shocking and unacceptable: “It is traumatic,” she said. “Families have been left, as usual, as victims of politics at large. A situation like this is really shocking. We really need to see clear, publicly stated actions. What steps are going to be taken to fix this and to give families answers?”

Monica Lennon, Labour MSP and spokeswoman for health, said the situation was “heart-breaking” and being replicated across the country. Last December she received confirmation from Lord Advocate Wolffe that since February 2019, 1859 post mortem examination reports had been delayed as a direct result of delays in forensic toxicology analysis.

The National: Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC

She added: “Apart from the additional pain and torment these delays are causing individual families, there is growing concern that Scotland’s drug deaths emergency is not being taken seriously.

“If the chaos at the toxicology service leads to the annual reporting of drug-related deaths being delayed, it’s hard to see how the Lord Advocate can carry on. The Lord Advocate was appointed by Nicola Sturgeon and if she still has confidence in him, she owes it to all of the families affected to explain why they should share this confidence. Apologies are not enough, families deserve answers.”

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DR Andrew McAuley, an expert in addiction working at both Glasgow Caledonian University and for NHS Health Protection Scotland, said the additional £300,000 invested in the service last month was welcome.

But he added: ”The sheer volume of cases that are outstanding coupled with the reduced staffing capacity at the forensic toxicology unit – caused by the uncertainty around the contract dispute in the first place – makes any catch-up exercise almost impossible.

“It’s such a shame as we in Scotland are normally regarded as the gold standard for quality and timeliness of our drug-related death data.

“Beyond not having any figures, there are increasing numbers of families not able to get a definitive answer on how their loved one has died. The emotional impact of such a scenario must be awful for those involved. This is particularly acute for deaths that are suspected to be drug-related [due to] the stigma attached to such cases.”

The National:

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said it was pleased to have agreed to provide toxicology services to the Crown Office until September.

He added: “Unfortunately, the delay in concluding this arrangement created uncertainty and led to some staff leaving the university, with a resultant impact on the time taken to deliver reports. Colleagues are working extremely hard to address this issue.”

A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said it “appreciates the impact of the delays in toxicology analysis”. He added: As a matter of urgency COPFS is evaluating a number of options to secure the future delivery of these services.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government recognises the impact which delays in confirming the cause of death can have; and the importance of toxicology services to the prosecution of crime and the investigation of deaths in Scotland. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is working closely with the University of Glasgow with a view to seeking to address delays.”