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Health secretary's visit seen as snub by Caithness campaign group

By David G Scott

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North MSP Gail Ross (second from right) stands next to Jeane Freeman along with healthcare professionals during the health secretary's visit to Caithness General Hospital.
North MSP Gail Ross (second from right) stands next to Jeane Freeman along with healthcare professionals during the health secretary's visit to Caithness General Hospital.

LOCAL health campaigners have been left feeling snubbed over a visit to Caithness General Hospital by Scotland's health secretary.

Jeane Freeman was in Wick on Tuesday to meet staff and patients at the hospital – but Caithness Health Action Team (Chat) was unhappy that its members had no opportunity to speak to the minister.

Chat chairman Bill Fernie said he had requested a meeting with Ms Freeman in August 2018 with a focus on discussing maternity provision for the far north.

"We were extremely disappointed to find out that she was in Wick and didn’t take the time to meet with us to discuss community concerns over healthcare and maternity," Mr Fernie said on Wednesday. "Clearly our community does not matter."

Gail Ross, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said the minister had visited the hospital in Wick at her request as part of a "mini Highland tour".

A press release sent out on Wednesday from Mrs Ross's office said that "the minister concentrated her visit on meaningful engagement with staff and patients at the facility, listening to their concerns and their feedback on changes".

It said Ms Freeman was also given the opportunity to praise staff who had gained a prestigious international award for their use of water and was able to "talk candidly" with midwives and health professionals about maternity services at the hospital.

"Jeane was there to meet the staff and hear their views on how we increase the morale and promote a positive vision of the hospital," Mrs Ross said. "She heard how the past couple of years of constant negativity has affected them.

"There has been constant negative press surrounding healthcare in Caithness for too long.

"There is really fantastic work being undertaken by very hard-working staff that needs to be recognised and I am glad that some of them have had the chance to show the health secretary first-hand.”

Mrs Ross added: “I was delighted that the health secretary had the chance to visit Caithness General and see for herself some of the great work going on there. She had a very in-depth talk with the midwives in the Henderson ward and discussed ways to positively promote the work they do.

"She met with the team responsible for the water stewardship award, the first hospital in the world to gain such an accolade, and was interested in how the system could benefit the area and if it could be rolled out to the rest of Scotland.

"She also heard of the plans for the healthcare redesign and saw the suite of rooms that houses the Near Me facility, reducing trips made to Raigmore for appointments that can be held in Caithness."

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said she was puzzled as to why the health secretary did not meet Chat members when she was in Wick. “Even to invite a small number of representatives would have shown a respect for the obvious concerns of people in the area,” Mrs Grant said.

“Ms Freeman met other campaigners in Inverness and in Elgin, so this lack of contact is bizarre.

"However, I can only hope that the visit means the Scottish Government is at last considering more investment in health in this remote and rural area and in others throughout the region. I will wait and see.”

Mr Fernie reiterated the point about Ms Freeman visiting health activists in Elgin and Inverness and wondered why she had "crept into the county".

He said: "We have asked for meetings again and again and here she comes to Caithness but didn't let anybody know.

"On one level they talk about it as a private meeting, then they splash photographs all over Facebook about it."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The health secretary understands the concerns Chat have raised and replied to them in detail last week.

"The health secretary met the NHS Highland whistleblowers group in Inverness which she committed to doing at a previous meeting and then met the Keep MUM campaign group in Elgin after they requested to see her.

“We’ve no record of a request from Chat to meet with Ms Freeman during the visit.

"To provide further reassurance, the Chief Medical Officer has arranged to meet the medical director of NHS Highland to discuss Chat’s concerns and the suggestions for improvements which Chat have made.”

Caithness, Sutherland Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone said it was "outrageous" that Ms Freeman had "refused to meet with Chat". He added: "This shows a blatant disregard for genuine local concerns and flies in the face of what the SNP claims to be about.”

Thurso and Northwest Caithness councillor Struan Mackie entered into an online spat with Mrs Ross posting comments on his Facebook page in which he said: "Far north health campaigners and my constituents will not tolerate being frozen out again."

Mrs Ross said in reply to the councillor's comments: "Jeane wanted to meet with them [hospital staff] and allow them to talk freely about their experiences and detail how the Scottish Government could help them rebuild and regain their confidence and the confidence of the public."

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