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'Step up to the mark or resign': MSP challenged over pause on health projects

By Alan Hendry

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Maree Todd is being urged to consider her position as MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross as the fallout continues over the pause on new healthcare projects.

The call came from two senior Highland councillors in the far north who were unimpressed with Ms Todd's response after it emerged that the £80 million Caithness redesign was being put on hold.

Richard Gale and Ron Gunn, who chair the Sutherland and Caithness area committees respectively and who are both Liberal Democrats, asked whether the SNP MSP was merely "toeing the party line" and claimed she should either "step up to the mark or resign".

They made their remarks in an open letter highlighting the "double whammy" faced by Caithness and Sutherland over the past two weeks – first the heavy snowfalls that closed the A9, then the news that Scottish health boards had been told to pause any new capital projects and concentrate on essential maintenance.

Projects in the NHS Highland area include community hub and care villages in Wick and Thurso, costing £55 million, and a reconfiguration of Caithness General Hospital. In March 2022 it was estimated that the overall Caithness redesign cost would be between £76 million and £82m.

Other developments include a £9 million plan to increase capacity at Raigmore Hospital's maternity unit in Inverness and a project to replace Fort William's Belford Hospital.

The Scottish Government described its capital funding position as "extremely challenging".

Councillors Gale and Gunn wrote: "Firstly, both counties were hit with extreme weather, making travel hazardous and for those travelling south from Caithness downright impossible. Just to complete the double, news came in of the U-turn on the funding for the Caithness redesign project, including the badly needed improvements to Caithness General Hospital, with a freeze on expenditure effectively killing off this excellent project that would have given residents a much-needed improvement in NHS services to the benefit primarily of Caithness but also for parts of Sutherland as well.

"This came as a total shock, yet perhaps we should not be surprised as the NHS and Scottish Government commitment to health services in Caithness, especially for women, has been woefully inadequate and indeed insulting to the residents who depend on the services provided.

"It is particularly poignant that the bad weather and this news came at the same time. Just as the closure of the A9 and all alternative routes south were closed, preventing any patient transport to Raigmore, any hope of improved services in Caithness were dashed.

"Pity help any expectant mothers who had to travel to Raigmore. It is a miracle that no-one in need of medical care was stuck on the Berriedale Braes, but miracles are few and far between and it is inevitable that one day lives will be lost due to the complete disregard shown by the NHS and the Scottish Government to the welfare of Caithness residents.

"Indeed, let’s be absolutely clear, there was no lifeline, no ambulance service or air ambulance that could have been deployed to prevent a tragedy in these circumstances.

"We should also recognise that even if help could have been mobilised, the lack of mobile phone cover at Berriedale and many other parts of the A9 would have meant that help could not have been summoned."

The councillors said it was "very interesting" that Kate Forbes, the SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, "came out fighting for her constituency", whereas Ms Todd "says she is disappointed and blames NHS Highland and Westminster when the Scottish Government has had full control of the NHS in Scotland for many years".

The letter went on: "Did she have no prior knowledge that the Scottish Government, her government, were to stop the funding? Does she have no regard for her constituents and their health needs? Does she not have an opinion or is she just toeing the party line, as so many SNP politicians do? Better to say nothing than to break the party ranks, perhaps.

"So our question to Ms Todd is this. Is it not time to consider your position as MSP for this area and either step up to the mark or resign and trigger a by-election so that we can have an MSP who actually cares for Caithness and Sutherland?"

Ms Todd said in response: “I will always speak up for my constituents and the communities I represent. I have a strong record of doing so.

“Westminster has cut Scotland's budget, and we are now – after 10 years of austerity – experiencing cuts on top of cuts, including a 10 per cent cut to our infrastructure budget.

“I will take no lessons from Lib Dem politicians who ushered in the era of austerity that we have all been suffering since 2010.

“This has real-life consequences that the Scottish Government is doing its best to mitigate here in the Highlands and throughout Scotland.”

Ms Todd has represented the constituency since 2021, having previously been a regional MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

Speaking on Tuesday, Ms Todd had described the Caithness redesign as "essential" and emphasised that she shares the desire of local people to see it delivered.

She requested an urgent meeting with NHS Highland management over the "temporary pause" on new capital projects.

“Like many of my constituents, I am disappointed with the news that Scottish health boards are halting new construction – which follows the UK government’s real-terms cut of 10 per cent to the Scottish Government’s capital budget, combined with an increase in construction costs due to inflation," Ms Todd said.

"For NHS Highland, this means a review of several projects, including the redesign of Caithness health services.

“I believe the Caithness redesign project is essential. The modernisation of both the healthcare estate and local services is needed to deliver high-quality health and social care, support staff and enhance community resilience across Caithness.

"Local people have worked exceptionally hard to develop this model with NHS Highland and, like them, I want to see it delivered.

“The Scottish Government approved the initial agreement for the Caithness redesign project in February 2022 but since then NHS Highland's timeline for progressing the application has slipped significantly, leading to delays in reaching the construction phase.

"I am keen to work with NHS Highland to identify what progress can be made whilst awaiting funding to minimise further delays.

"I have requested an urgent meeting with NHS Highland managers to discuss this, along with the impact on my constituents in Caithness. I will be looking to understand which aspects of the service redesign might be able to progress in the interim."

Ms Todd added: “This temporary pause is disheartening, and I completely empathise with the concerns that have arisen since this announcement. I am determined to see services improve in Caithness and I will continue to do everything I can to ensure progress is made as soon as possible.”

A reconfiguration of Caithness General Hospital is part of the redesign plans. Picture: Alan Hendry
A reconfiguration of Caithness General Hospital is part of the redesign plans. Picture: Alan Hendry

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As set out in our draft budget, the capital funding position is extremely challenging.

"The UK government did not inflation-proof its capital budget which has resulted in nearly a 10 per cent real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s capital funding over the medium term between 2023/24 and 2027/28. Our emphasis for the immediate future will be on addressing backlog maintenance and essential equipment replacement.

“Our Infrastructure Investment Plan (2021-22 to 2025-26) identified the priority health capital projects for funding within that period. As a result of the cut in our capital budget, a revised pipeline of infrastructure investment will be published in spring 2024 and all due consideration will be given to what projects can be included within that revised plan to ensure it is affordable and deliverable, while providing the best value for money.

"In the interim, boards have also been advised to pause any new capital projects.”

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: "In terms of capital projects, we have been advised to stop any project development spend. Instead, funds available should be focused on the maintenance of the estate and essential equipment and digital replacement.

"The main projects we are assessing are the Lochaber and Caithness redesigns, Cowal Community and the Raigmore Hospital maternity refurbishment.

"Our staff and communities have invested time and effort into these projects and we know this news will be difficult to hear. We are contacting key stakeholders as a priority so that we can work through the implications with them."

Last June it was announced that a design team had been appointed for the community hub and care villages in Wick and Thurso. The two sites are near Noss Primary School in Wick and at the Dunbar Hospital in Thurso.

A key aim is to bring together services and teams currently located in multiple sites, with the hubs featuring community and residential care beds, GP practice, outpatient consulting, therapy space and a base for community integrated teams.

The redesign also includes the redevelopment of Caithness General Hospital.

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