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Bring in the army: Caithness health campaigners' plea over Covid booster and flu jabs

By Alan Hendry

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Health campaigners in Caithness are calling for the army to be brought in to administer Covid booster and flu jabs after patients were faced with a catalogue of problems this week when trying to make appointments at vaccine clinics run by NHS Highland.

Many callers had to wait in lengthy queues and in some cases found themselves being cut off before they could get through. In one instance, an 81-year-old Thurso woman who is a carer for her husband finally had her call answered after an hour and a quarter – only to be told the clinic she was trying to book was full up.

Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) claims that the NHS Highland vaccination programme is "broken" and is calling for "urgent military aid".

The health board said its vaccination enquiry hub had been affected by a software malfunction which had now been resolved. A spokesperson apologised for the "anxiety and stress" that had been caused.

NHS Highland is organising Covid booster and flu vaccine clinics in the Royal British Legion in Thurso next Thursday for patients registered at the town's Riverbank practice (fully booked) and in Wick Assembly Rooms on Friday for Riverview patients.

In a social media post calling for military support, CHAT said: "What is currently in place is clearly not working and NHS Highland is clearly not able to cope."

It went on: "Communication with patients is very poor and for those not having a mobile phone or access to the internet, information is virtually non-existent.

"We have discovered that some independent GP practices in Caithness are still providing vaccine services for their patients and this programme has proved to be very successful. However, other GP practices have been permitted to opt out of providing this service.

"The patients of GP practices that have chosen to opt out of the vaccine programme have been told that they must phone a central number to book an appointment. They are then faced with a number of serious issues such as patients being put continuously on hold as a high number in a queue.

"This means waiting to speak to someone for excessively long times, on a number that is not a freephone number. Many are also receiving a constantly engaged response, before being cut off then not being able to make contact as the lines close at 5pm. Some have even been told they can get an appointment in Inverness."

CHAT said it had written to NHS Highland chief executive Pam Dudek on October 12 raising concerns about some GP practices delivering the vaccines and others opting out – "resulting in patients being left in distress and extremely anxious, trying desperately to book through a centralised appointment system, waiting in excessively long phone queues and then finally failing to get through or eventually giving up".

The group stated: "Unfortunately, Pam Dudek’s dismissive response was to push our genuine concern through as a ‘complaint’ to the complaints department which also states ‘it will unlikely be responded to within the statutory 20 days due to Covid’.

"This centralised NHS Highland vaccination programme is broken and urgent help is now required to step in to assist the vaccination programme for Caithness citizens who need to be kept safe during this vulnerable time."

CHAT vice-chairman Ron Gunn said yesterday: "I understand that practices can legitimately pull out of the programme – but surely, for continuity for the patients, the practices should have completed this vaccination programme and let folk know that it would be different next year. That would have saved a lot of confusion and upset."

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said yesterday: "Our vaccination enquiry hub team have experienced a lot of technical issues due to a software malfunction this week. This has resulted in considerable frustration both for people trying to contact the team and book an appointment, and our staff. The vaccination enquiry hub was not the only site impacted by these issues.

"This malfunction caused calls to cut out in mid-conversation as well as one-way transmission and silent calls. We are pleased to confirm that these issues have now been resolved.

"We recognise that this will have caused anxiety and stress to people trying to book vaccine appointments and we apologise for this.

"Our vaccination enquiry hub is receiving an extremely high number of calls just now, and this has been exacerbated by these technical issues.

"If you are eligible for a Covid-19 booster please wait to be invited by the board or your GP practice before contacting the hub team.

"Please bear with us. We will answer your call as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience."

As well as next week's Thurso and Wick sessions, NHS Highland is running a vaccine clinic for patients registered with the Dunbeath practice in the village hall on Saturday, October 30.

Details are on the NHS Highland website.

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