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Caithness being 'forgotten, ignored and disempowered' over health care, campaigners tell Scottish Parliament

By Gordon Calder

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People in Caithness feel they are being "forgotten, ignored and disempowered" when it comes to health care. That was the strong message delivered by three local campaigners when they addressed the Scottish Parliament's Petitions Committee at Holyrood this week.

Billy Sinclair, Maria Aitken and Rebecca Wymer made the case for a fairer and more equitable service for the far north on Wednesday and told the MSPs something has to change.

Billy Sinclair with the Caithness flag at the Scottish Parliament this week
Billy Sinclair with the Caithness flag at the Scottish Parliament this week

Maria Aitken, who is the secretary of the Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT), said: "Decisions are made in the central areas of Scotland by people who are not aware of the challenges we face. We need people who know about living in remote and rural areas and get decisions made on what's best for our area."

She pointed out that most of the north's clinicians are in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, which is over 100 miles away.

Mrs Aitken said no-one listened to local concerns when the maternity unit at Caithness General Hospital in Wick was downgraded from a consultant to a midwife-led unit in 2016.

"We feel we are being forgotten, ignored and disempowered," she stressed. CHAT would like an obstetric-supported community midwife unit similar to the one in Orkney and says that would be a better model for the far north.

Mrs Aitken also called for rural access to training so people could gain skills locally and highlighted the need for an agency to ensure that remote areas are not disadvantaged.

Rebecca Wymer from John O' Groats said people are put off moving to the far north because they cannot access the health care and maternity services they should have. Others move away from the area to seek better health care, she stated.

Ms Wymer described the road from Caithness to Inverness as "appalling" in winter and stressed that many women have to travel on it to give birth. She said the journey was equivalent of going from Edinburgh to Newcastle. "That is not acceptable," she told the committee.

Rebecca Wymer spoke at the Scottish Parliament.
Rebecca Wymer spoke at the Scottish Parliament.

Ms Wymer said a claim by Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf that staffing levels in NHS Scotland were at a record high was "poorly-timed or out of touch" and said she looks forward to meeting him when he comes north in the summer.

Billy Sinclair from Thurso said the health authority did not listen to local people or its own staff about the concerns expressed about the downgrading of the maternity unit in Wick and claimed the risk to mothers was ignored.

Mr Sinclair highlighted incidents where a woman gave birth to one of her two twins in Golspie and the other in Inverness. He also pointed out that another mother had her baby in a lay-by on her way to Raigmore. "How would you like if that was your wife, daughter or partner going through that?" he asked the committee.

Mr Sinclair also pointed out that thousands of patients have to travel over 100 miles for appointments and treatments in the Highland capital. He claimed NHS Highland is not working for rural areas and would like Caithness to have its own health board and local authority.

Before 1995 Caithness had more control over health and council matters but following re-organisation and centralisation there was "a deterioration in services" provided locally by both bodies. "There is something wrong with what is going on here," he added.

North MSP Rhoda Grant, who attended the meeting, called for a risk assessment to be undertaken of the journey from Wick to Inverness. If a mother goes into labour early she faces "a drive down that road which can be horrendous in winter. Nobody will risk assess the journey and I hope the committee will request that, at least, in emergency situations."

She said changes are needed along with an advocate for rural areas.

Afterwards, Mr Sinclair said he was disappointed he never got "a proper opportunity to present the evidence, especially regards Highland Council" and is considering putting in a complaint about the way the session was conducted. He thinks it was a mistake to have four petitions heard at the same time – three from Caithness and one from the Dumfries area, although all were to do with rural issues.

"I was happy to get a few points raised about maternity but feel I got no opportunity to raise the concerns about Highland Council," he said.

The committee, chaired by Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw, will issue any recommendations at a later date.

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