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Caithness is being 'failed and neglected' says councillor as he tells of concerns over falling birth rate

By Alan Hendry

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Councillor Matthew Reiss: 'Not even China achieved such a drop with its one-child policy.'
Councillor Matthew Reiss: 'Not even China achieved such a drop with its one-child policy.'

A Caithness councillor has spoken of his concerns over the county's sharp decline in births and drawn a comparison with the impact of China's former one-child policy.

Councillor Matthew Reiss, who represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness, says the birth rate locally has fallen by up to 41 per cent since the loss of the consultant-led service at Caithness General Hospital and only 15 babies were born there last year.

While Orkney has a full maternity service, he says, with most births taking place locally, Caithness is a "neglected poor neighbour" with the vast majority of its mothers-to-be having to travel to Raigmore in Inverness.

Councillor Reiss spoke out as he reiterated his support for the campaign groups Caithness Roads Recovery and Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) following their announcement last week that they will be working closely together. He says the two groups represent "democracy in action", and that roads and maternity provision are "basic essentials" on which the county is being failed.

The Caithness maternity service changed from an obstetric unit to a midwife unit in 2016.

Councillor Reiss says he has come to the conclusion that Caithness now "has its back to the wall" on a number of fronts.

"Despite well-intentioned efforts the population is falling rapidly, our airport remains closed [to scheduled flights], there is neglect of the A9/A99 and broadband problems persist," he said. "Criticism must be measured and reasonable but I feel unable to remain silent any longer.

"In 2016 we lost our consultant-led service at Caithness General Hospital. Since then our birth rate has dropped by up to 41 per cent. Not even China achieved such a drop with its one-child policy.

"Just 15 babies were born at Caithness General last year and our fantastic midwives need to work at other hospitals to keep their qualifications valid. The public were assured other related medical services would remain – not all have. What does the future hold for our maternity unit?

"The essential safety review of the new maternity arrangements was apparently never done and, if I understand Edward Mountain [Conservative MSP for the Highlands Islands] correctly, he was assured it had been and the arrangements for transport were 'safe'. I do not accept this assertion – in fact I am quite certain travelling down the A9 or the Strath Halladale A897 road on a winter’s night with a passenger in labour is unsafe.

"Across the Pentland Firth, Orcadian families have a full maternity service and 80 per cent of mothers give birth safely locally. For Caithness, the neglected poor neighbour, 91 per cent have to travel to Raigmore.

"NHS Highland tend to get much of the blame but the cuts they have been forced to impose are due to their own budget being reduced by the Scottish Government. I think NHS Highland are in an impossible situation because they have to heed what the government tells them.

"I'm not sure anyone truly expected such a drop in births, mainly because our area is unique in being so far from the alternative hospital, so this was an untested, unique situation. CHAT and others warned government of the risks at the time."

Many mothers-to-be from Caithness have to make the long journey to Raigmore Hospital.
Many mothers-to-be from Caithness have to make the long journey to Raigmore Hospital.

Last month, local MP Jamie Stone invited Scotland's health secretary Humza Yousaf and the minister for public health, women's health and sport, Maree Todd, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, to join him on a Covid-compliant road trip from Wick to Raigmore this winter. Mr Stone said such a journey would help the ministers to understand "the realities of this situation".

Councillor Reiss said: "I hope the health secretary and our MSP have accepted Mr Stone’s suggestion to do the trip themselves and heed the suggestion to sit in the back of an ambulance for this purpose."

On the state of the roads, Councillor Reiss said: "Our road conditions have met with anger and incredulity. Yes, the council has made mistakes – who hasn’t? But the repair budget has been more than doubled and our staff continue to perform a near impossible task 24/7.

"The huge increase in expenditure by the council on the roads is extremely welcome and only been made possible by effective financial management.

"Councillor Raymond Bremner has devoted much time to analysing the situation. Meantime, our MSP [Ms Todd] has reported Highland Council to the Scottish Road Works Commissioner. The council’s emergency bid for extra funds specifically for Caithness was turned down by the Scottish Government as it did not meet the criteria.

"A small sum of additional money from the Scottish Government would make a substantial difference to the area and I really do ask for this to be considered: some examples are the airport, the re-opening of a small Tourist Information Centre, replacement of brown Tourism related signs and fast tracking rural broadband would be so helpful and welcome items of good news."

He added: "I have been criticised occasionally for speaking out on important local matters, the argument being that bad publicity breeds more bad news. So do we just say nothing and watch the damage accelerate?

"Democracy is still alive and Caithness folk can vote in or out councillors and those in the parliaments. I would much rather publicise all the good news within Caithness, but roads and especially the maternity situation are basic essentials. We are being failed and neglected."

The Scottish Government has said that Mr Yousaf is considering the letter from Mr Stone and will respond.

A spokesperson said: “We expect all boards to provide maternity services that are delivered as close to home as possible, but this has to be balanced with ensuring the safety of mother and baby.

“In May 2020 the Scottish Government provided capital funding for the creation of a new-build community midwifery unit [CMU] at Caithness General Hospital. This work is near to completion.”

The Scottish Government has said that the number of babies being born in the Caithness CMU is "comparable to numbers born in other CMUs in Highland and other parts of Scotland".

It says: "Mothers-to-be are provided information about both CMU and consultant units, including transfer/transport, geography and retrieval times, to support their decision on place of birth."

The Scottish Government says the change to a midwife unit in Caithness was "on the basis of safety", and that mothers and/or babies who are assessed as needing obstetric or neonatal care are transferred to Raigmore.

In 1979 China's leaders introduced a policy limiting families to only one child, with the aim of controlling the increase in the population, although exceptions were made. The one-child policy was abolished from the start of 2016.

NHS Highland has been asked to comment.

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