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Caithness campaigner tells of anger over pause on healthcare projects

By Alan Hendry

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Ron Gunn: 'To be honest, I don't know if I will ever see the hubs.' Picture: Alan Hendry
Ron Gunn: 'To be honest, I don't know if I will ever see the hubs.' Picture: Alan Hendry

Caithness campaigner Ron Gunn has spoken of his anger and disappointment over the "bombshell" news that new healthcare projects are being put on hold.

He also questioned whether the £80 million Caithness redesign will ever go ahead, given the constraints on Scottish Government funding.

Mr Gunn is chairman of Caithness Health Action Team, having got involved after the group's day of action in 2017 in support of local hospital services.

Scottish health boards have been told to pause any new capital projects and concentrate on essential maintenance. NHS Highland acknowledged that the news would be "difficult to hear".

Projects affected in the NHS Highland area include community hub and care villages in Wick and Thurso, costing £55 million, and a reconfiguration of Caithness General Hospital. In March 2022 it was estimated that the overall Caithness redesign cost would be between £76 million and £82m.

Last June it was announced that a design team had been appointed for the hubs in Wick and Thurso. The two sites are near Noss Primary School in Wick and at the Dunbar Hospital in Thurso.

Developments elsewhere in the region include a £9 million plan to increase capacity at Raigmore Hospital's maternity unit in Inverness and a replacement of Fort William's Belford Hospital.

The Scottish Government has described its capital funding position as "extremely challenging".

Mr Gunn said: "On the withdrawal of funding, not only am I very disappointed but quite angry.

"I got involved way back when NHS Highland held a meeting following our day of action in 2017. At this meeting I showed the audience a copy of the Caithness Courier with the headline, 'Is anyone listening?'

"Maimie Thompson, who was the head public relations person for NHS Highland, replied that NHS Highland wanted to say sorry and apologise for the way it had treated Caithness folk and wanted to make a fresh start. That was where the Caithness redesign came to light.

"I attended every redesign meeting, workshop and event for several years and I know the hard work that NHS Highland staff put into the project.

"I was asked to sit on the group that oversees the redesign project. There were a few hold-ups but it eventually got going, and we were where we were until this bombshell hit.

"To be honest, I don't know if I will ever see the hubs because if the Scottish Government doesn't have the money now, where are they going to get it two or three years down the road? That is also about when we will have a Scottish Parliament election.

"Again, it's the folk of Caithness who will suffer."

Mr Gunn is also a Highland councillor for the Thurso and Northwest Caithness ward. In his capacity as chairman of the local authority's Caithness area committee, he co-wrote an open letter calling on the SNP's Maree Todd to consider her position as MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

He and his Sutherland counterpart Richard Gale asked whether Ms Todd was merely "toeing the party line" over the pause on healthcare projects and claimed she should either "step up to the mark or resign".

Councillors Gunn and Gale are both Liberal Democrats.

Responding, Ms Todd insisted: “I will always speak up for my constituents and the communities I represent. I have a strong record of doing so.

“Westminster has cut Scotland's budget, and we are now – after 10 years of austerity – experiencing cuts on top of cuts, including a 10 per cent cut to our infrastructure budget.

“I will take no lessons from Lib Dem politicians who ushered in the era of austerity that we have all been suffering since 2010.”

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