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Thurso couple in their eighties faced prospect of 150-mile bus trip after booster jag 'glitch'

By Alan Hendry

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Margaret Mackay: 'It seems a great shame that older people have to struggle like this.'
Margaret Mackay: 'It seems a great shame that older people have to struggle like this.'

An NHS "glitch" left a Caithness couple in their eighties facing the prospect of a 150-mile round trip by bus for their Covid spring booster jab.

Margaret Mackay thought her husband Donald was joking when he told her that a letter had arrived at their home in Thurso offering them a vaccination appointment in Tain.

Mr Mackay (84) has health problems and, although he drives within the local area, the couple would have had to rely on public transport to go all the way to Easter Ross and back.

Mrs Mackay (82) contacted the health board to explain their predicament and the couple have now been given alternative slots at a vaccine clinic in Thurso.

However, Mrs Mackay is concerned that other elderly people in Caithness receiving similar appointment letters may be "worried sick" and not be so confident about requesting a rescheduled appointment closer to home.

Spring booster doses are being offered to "high-risk" groups including adults aged 75 and over.

Mr and Mrs Mackay, of Millbank Road, Thurso, received their first Covid vaccine in January last year, their second in April and their first booster in October. All three were administered in Thurso.

This week they received a letter offering a spring booster on May 17 at the Duthac Centre in Tain, approximately 75 miles away.

“I was just so immensely angry,” Mrs Mackay said, having realised that her husband was being serious.

The accompanying letter stated: “We strongly recommend you attend your appointment as your level of protection against Covid-19 may have reduced since your last dose.”

It added that appointments could be rearranged by calling a free number or by going online to nhsinform.scot and providing a unique username, postcode, date of birth and email address.

“It's not all the elderly people over 80 who are going to be able to cope with all of that,” Mrs Mackay said.

She called the number given in the letter. "They do tell you that there's more than a 15-minute wait, so at least you're not left holding on," she explained.

“I listened for a bit and then I thought no, I'm not going to do this. I thought maybe the postman had delivered lots of letters and people were all trying to get through.

"Donald said, 'It makes you feel it's not worth bothering. I think I would rather go without than go all that way.'"

Mrs Mackay phoned a second time and got through after about 15 minutes.

The couple have now been given an appointment for April 19 at Thurso's Royal British Legion club.

When she questioned why she and her husband were initially offered appointments in Tain, she was told "there was a bit of a glitch when envelopes were sent out". Mrs Mackay said she was informed by the person taking the call that "just a few" others had been similarly affected.

"Obviously this has happened to a lot of people," Mrs Mackay said. "What madness to send us an appointment for Tain.

"Fortunately I've got my wits about me still and I can speak up for myself. But there's a lot of people who can't, and I just hope they get it sorted out and not worry themselves sick about having to go down to Tain.

“I can find out and do things for myself, but there are a lot of older people who would not be so self-confident.

"You do begin to wonder what NHS Highland is up to, you really do."

Mrs Mackay added: “I do want to have the booster – of course I do. But it seems a great shame that older people have to struggle like this. We don't want to jump up and down and shout, but it seems that's what you have to do.”

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: "Unfortunately the Covid vaccination programme has seen some scheduling and appointing issues with the national system which has resulted in people being asked to attend for their Covid vaccination outwith their local area.

"This has affected residents in Highland and Argyll and Bute.

"We are very sorry about this. Our teams are working with the national team to ensure, as best as we can, that this doesn’t happen again.

"Messages have been placed on our website and issued on our social media advising people that if they have been asked to attend an appointment outwith their local area they can contact the NHS Highland vaccination hub who will assist in rescheduling their appointment."

Details of vaccination clinics are on the NHS Highland website. The vaccination enquiry hub number is 08000 320 339 or email nhsh.covidvaccine@nhs.scot

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