NHS Highland is 'committed' to redesign of Caithness health services, says Maree Todd
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NHS Highland is "committed" to the £80 million redesign of health services in Caithness despite Scottish Government funding being put on hold for at least two years.
That was said this week by far north MSP, Maree Todd, who has been "encouraged by the proactive steps" being taken by the health authority.
The Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP was speaking after getting an update on the scheme from NHS Highland.
The redesign project includes community hub and care villages in Wick and Thurso – costing £55 million – and a reconfiguration of Caithness General Hospital.
Ms Todd was told the redesign of services, workforce planning, development of the local care model and digital work streams will continue, as they are not completely "dependent on building solutions." The hub North Scotland design and consultant teams will remain in place until the end of February when the contract will pause.
Contractor Balfour Beatty, external design and consultant teams associated with the Caithness General project will remain in place until March 31 when the contract will also pause, it was stated.
Ms Todd said: "Inevitably, capital funding will be available again at some point in the future and I’m confident now that the Caithness building projects will be ready to apply for central funding when that moment comes.
"I am also reassured to hear that NHS Highland is still committed to progressing with the planned redesign of services. This will deliver crucial improvements to local healthcare delivery in Caithness, enabling patient centred care and ensuring better access to services in the community."
The SNP MSP added: "I view the Caithness redesign project as essential, and I am committed to doing everything I can to support its progress."
However, Ron Gunn, who chairs the Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT), claimed local people would be interested to know how much Ms Todd – a Scottish Government minister – knew before the announcement was made. "I wonder if she put up any resistance against the decision to withdraw the funding. It was a big decision to withhold funding from health projects all over Scotland," he said.
Scottish health boards have been told to pause any new capital projects until 2026 at the earliest and concentrate on essential maintenance after the Scottish Government described its capital funding position as "extremely challenging".
Mr Gunn wondered if the decision was "political as well as financial" with a Scottish general election due in 2026.
He also pointed out the work will be more expensive in two to three years due to inflation and rising costs.
Mr Gunn, a Thurso and Northwest Caithness councillor and chairman of the Caithness Committee, said: "It is encouraging to hear that NHS Highland is continuing to work on this in the background and could resume the work if they get the funding."
"Everyone is disappointed by the decision to pause these projects as a lot of work has been done by the health authority to get where we are."
He added: "I am not as optimistic about this scheme as I was taking everything into consideration. We will have to wait and see what happens but I wonder if it will go ahead. There will be queues across Scotland wanting funding for their projects but it is good that NHS Highland could be ready to go if the funding becomes available."
Mr Gunn said the postponement affects the plans for the planned health hubs in Wick and Thurso as well as work at Caithness General hospital. "That impacts patients and staff as well. The whole thing is very disappointing. I know how important this is to the community and patients in Caithness. It will be an asset for the area if it ever gets back on track."
Thurso community councillor, Alexander Glasgow, who was at the most recent meeting of the Caithness Redesign Consultation Group, said: "It was a positive meeting. The design process has not been stopped and NHS Highland is free to continue with that work but the capital funding from the Scottish Government has been paused, " he said.
Mr Alexander was concerned about the length of time the scheme was taking but is hopeful it can be resumed at a later stage although it will be more expensive in a few years time.
NHS Highland will have to compete for the Scottish Government funding with health authorities all over Scotland, he said.
Other projects in the Highlands which will be affected by the decision 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.
Mr Glasgow added: Everybody was supportive of the position NHS Highland finds itself in. It was not entirely unexpected but it is disappointing for everyone involved."