Work on Caithness healthcare redesign 'has never been more important'
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NHS Highland has given an assurance that preparing for the redesign of health and social care services in Caithness "has never been more important for us and the people we care for".
The health board emphasised that work will continue on planning and implementing the £80 million redesign even though Scottish Government funding for healthcare construction projects has been put on hold for at least two years.
Highland councillors in the county said they accepted that the situation was "not the fault of NHS Highland" and that the board is facing a "daunting challenge".
NHS Highland's Caithness redesign project team met with a group of stakeholders at the Royal British Legion club in Thurso after Scottish health boards were told to pause any new capital projects and concentrate on essential maintenance.
Projects affected include the 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.
NHS Highland stressed that it is vital to continue developing plans to reshape services in the far north and to address "key issues such as workforce planning".
Director of nursing Louise Bussell said: “It was hugely disappointing when we heard about capital funding being paused. We understand the frustration that our communities and colleagues will feel as they have worked very hard on the project for a long time.
“While we are unable to progress the construction elements of our projects in Caithness, we can continue planning how we can improve services.
“This work has never been more important for us and the people we care for, and strengthening these plans will better inform the design changes when funding for capital projects become available.
“As with all elements of the redesign project, we will continue to engage with communities, organisations and our colleagues to help us understand how we make our services affordable, sustainable and fit for both now and in the future.”
Councillor Ron Gunn, chairman of Highland Council’s Caithness committee and chairman of Caithness Health Action Team, said: “I am delighted that the NHS Highland Caithness redesign project team called this meeting to give an update. I think it’s fair to say that everyone in the room was very disappointed that the funding has been paused by the Scottish Government, for how long we don’t really know."
Councillor Gunn, who represents the Thurso and Northwest Caithness ward, added: “I think it’s important that the point was made that this situation was not the fault of NHS Highland and that the community is supportive of the redesign project, including the improvements planned for Caithness General Hospital.
"It was reassuring to hear that they are continuing to work on how the hubs will operate so as they will be ready to go should the funding become available.”
Councillor Willie Mackay (Wick and East Caithness) said: “I was quite disappointed when I heard the news that capital investment by the Scottish Government towards the ongoing Caithness health service redesign was to be paused .
“A terrific amount of consultation over several years had taken place involving local NHS staff, local councillors, doctors and a very good representation of the general public.
“The plan drawn up and the vision was the best possible in redesigning our local health services and every encouragement is required now to support our NHS in Caithness in its continuing fight to get back on track and see the vision of the planned hubs becoming a much-needed reality.”
Councillor Matthew Reiss (Thurso and Northwest Caithness) said: “This was a very frank meeting where I felt there was real shock at what has happened and a determination to somehow move forward.
"We need to support NHS Highland, who were basically instructed to stop all the capital projects, including our new hubs, for an indefinite period which will be years.
"I will try and help the NHS with this rather daunting challenge.”
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Maree Todd had said earlier she was "encouraged by the proactive steps" being taken by NHS Highland.
Last June it was announced that a design team had been appointed for the hubs in Wick and Thurso. The two sites are near Noss Primary School in Wick and at the Dunbar Hospital in Thurso.
Developments elsewhere in the region 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.
The Scottish Government has described its capital funding position as "extremely challenging".