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Campaigners say in-depth review could lead to 'positive change' in Caithness health and council services

By Gordon Calder

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Caithness could see "positive change" in the way its health and council services are provided, campaigners have claimed.

Three local activists who spoke to MSPs in Holyrood last week have been told their concerns are to be the subject of an in-depth review by a Scottish parliamentary committee.

Billy Sinclair, Maria Aitken and Rebecca Wymer are delighted the issues they highlighted are to be looked at by the health, social care and sport committee, along with a fourth petition raised by Dr Gordon Baird from the Dumfries and Galloway area.

All focused on rural health care although Mr Sinclair would also like to see Caithness have its own council.

The Caithness campaigners want better and fairer services for the far north and told members of the Public Petitions Committee something has to change.

The committee, chaired by Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw, reconvened on Wednesday and said the health care challenges facing rural communities were "vividly demonstrated" and should be reviewed.

Rebecca Wymer is delighted with the decision by the Public Petititons Committee
Rebecca Wymer is delighted with the decision by the Public Petititons Committee

The decision was welcomed by the campaigners, with Rebecca Wymer from John O'Groats describing it as "great news" while Maria Aitken, the secretary of Caithness Health Action Team, said she was "extremely pleased by the response". Billy Sinclair from Thurso said the outcome was "a step forward".

Mrs Aitken said: "We are extremely pleased with the response of the Public Petitions Committee. After six long years campaigning about detrimental inequalities within our centralised healthcare system we have finally been heard and listened to.

"The committee members seemed to really understand the failures of centralised health care for our community and the dangerous safety issues involved in driving long distances to receive health care.

"Let us hope that this is the beginning of a culture change, with equitable rural health care delivered locally, not over 100 miles away. This change process begins with empowering the Caithness community in the return of its own health council."

Last week, Mrs Aitken told the MSPs people in Caithness feel they are being "forgotten, ignored and disempowered" when it comes to health care.

Maria Aitken, secretary of CHAT, hopes the decision will lead to changes in health care in Caithness
Maria Aitken, secretary of CHAT, hopes the decision will lead to changes in health care in Caithness

Ms Wymer, who co-runs the Endometriosis North Highland Group and the North Highland Women’s Wellness Hub, said: "I am delighted to see that the dire situation for women's health is now being heard by those in parliament.

"It feels hopeful that positive change will come from all four petitions filed on the subject of Highland rural health care. They can't ignore all of us. NHS Highland staff and patients alike deserve a better system and far more government backing than they receive."

Billy Sinclair, who wants to see Caithness get its own council and health board, said: "I regard this as a step forward in the process and can only hope that it leads to change in the way our health care and council services are provided."

The MSPs, who considered additional written submissions from the campaigners this week, acknowledged the challenges facing rural areas over its health care provision and decided the concerns raised over maternity, gynaecology and other services should be referred to the health, social care and sport committee. They also mentioned the distances patients have to go for appointments and the "woefully inadequate" travel expenses they receive.

Billy Sinclair at the Scottish Parliament
Billy Sinclair at the Scottish Parliament

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant reminded the petitions committee that Billy Sinclair had also raised issues about local government services in Caithness.

Mr Carlaw said: "We take note of that."

Mr Sinclair has lodged a formal complaint with the committee as he feels he did not get a proper opportunity to present his evidence about Highland Council and the centralisation of services.

The in-depth review by the health committee is expected to take place later in the year.

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