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Pregnant cows have better safeguards than expectant mothers from Caithness, says local health campaigner


By Alan Hendry

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There have been calls for a return to a consultant-led maternity service at Caithness General Hospital.
There have been calls for a return to a consultant-led maternity service at Caithness General Hospital.

A Caithness health campaigner has claimed that better safeguards exist for pregnant cows than for expectant mothers from the far north who face 200-mile round trips to Inverness to give birth.

Bill Fernie, chairman of Caithness Health Action Team, accused the Scottish Government of having allowed maternity services in the Highlands and Moray "to go backwards".

He spoke out after a Scottish Parliament cross-party members’ debate about the downgrading of the consultant-led maternity unit at Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin.

The debate was secured by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross and supported by Labour's Rhoda Grant. Both are regional MSPs for the Highlands and Islands.

The motion welcomed the Keep MUM group’s campaigning efforts in Moray and called for an urgent resolution to the downgrading.

Mr Fernie said: "It is good that Douglas Ross and Rhoda Grant are highlighting maternity issues once again for Moray and Caithness. Years have rolled by but the Scottish Government has refused to get Grampian and Highland health boards to fix this problem.

"It is plainly ridiculous that cattle have better and tighter regulations regarding distance to travel when pregnant than women in the far north.

"The arguments for women at Dr Gray's in Elgin are multiplied in Caithness, where the distance to Raigmore is much greater and longer.

"The Scottish Government has allowed our maternity services to go backwards, and all the excuses in the world cannot answer the geography and how we managed it in earlier years. This is one of the most basic life circumstances and it is past time when the government got this sorted."

Mrs Grant said during the debate: “It is a huge disappointment that the service at Dr Gray’s has not been reinstated, and we need to see more tangible action now.

“I pay tribute to the Keep MUM group, which has led the campaign to restore the service. I wish the group well and offer my support to its campaign until we get the services reinstated at Dr Gray’s.”

Mrs Grant mentioned that the same service was no longer available at Caithness General Hospital in Wick. She has highlighted concerns over the 200-mile round journeys to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness that many pregnant women have to make.

"The birth of a child should be a joyous occasion, with the mother surrounded by her partner and family,” Mrs Grant told MSPs.

“It is not an illness – it is a life event that requires to be cherished. That is why giving birth in the setting that the mother desires, with access to family, is crucial.

“We all know that things can go wrong and that intervention can be required to save both mother and child. Having obstetricians and paediatricians on hand to intervene at short notice gives confidence to parents and to midwives.

“That should be the case in Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin. Indeed, it was the case until staffing shortages forced what was supposed to be a temporary change. Unfortunately, three years later, the change appears to be permanent.”

She added: “The service is no longer available at Caithness General either, and there appears to be no will on the part of NHS Highland to look again at the matter.

“The issue is the lack of paediatricians. When the situation in Caithness was assessed, it was suggested that obstetric support alone might lead to a delay in transfer in an emergency, which would mean that a baby who was born in difficult circumstances would not have paediatric support.

“The lack of both sets of professionals is forcing women in labour who get into difficulty to be transferred by ambulance while they are in labour.

“Many women in that situation have given birth in even more dangerous circumstances. The case of the twins who were born in two different counties illustrates that – only the quick thinking and dedication of staff saved the day.

“The alternative is inductions and elective caesarean sections, which are not without risk. There has been a marked increase in those procedures. Risk assessments are needed in relation to the increase in caesarean sections and the risks of travel while in labour, especially on poor roads in wintry conditions.”

Mrs Grant added: “In the interim, the government needs to consider how to get specialists to the mother and baby, rather than expecting a mother in labour to travel to services. It needs to enable ScotSTAR – the Scottish specialist transport and retrieval service, which provides emergency stabilisation and retrieval – to consider how it can extend the service to obstetric and associated paediatric support.”

In his speech, Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “Centralising more and more services in Inverness and Aberdeen is not what our communities want. What families in Caithness and Moray need is a government which protects our local maternity services."

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

The Scottish Government has invested £18 million in reforming maternity care in Scotland as set out in The Best Start: A Five-Year Forward Plan for Maternity and Neonatal Care in Scotland.

The spokesperson added: “We welcomed the Best Start north review, commissioned by NHS Grampian, Highland and the island boards, which aims to examine maternity and neonatal services in the north of Scotland and, in consultation with local people, develop the best possible sustainable model for the future.

“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, with an opening date expected soon.”

The Scottish Government says the number of babies being born in the Caithness CMU is comparable to numbers born in other community midwifery units in Highland and other parts of Scotland. It says mothers-to-be are provided with information about both CMU and consultant units, including transfer/transport, geography and retrieval times, to support their decision on place of birth.

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