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Highland healthcare backlog crisis in wake of coronavirus pandemic, MSP claims

By Gregor White

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MSP Edward Mountain has suggested new accommodation may need to be built in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital.
MSP Edward Mountain has suggested new accommodation may need to be built in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive backlog of treatment which is set to plunge health services in the region into an unprecedented crisis.

So says Tory Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain who claims the disease has caused a “perfect storm” from which it could take years for NHS Highland to recover.

He sounded the alarm after discovering Raigmore Hospital in Inverness has lost about 30 per cent of beds due to Covid-proofing measures.

Figures from Public Health Scotland suggest it is likely 3000 Highland patients have seen treatment altered, postponed or cancelled.

Between March and May 2019 a total of 4128 planned operations took place in the Highlands while during the same period this year, because of lockdown, only 1024 were completed.

Mr Mountain called for drastic action including creating a temporary facility on Raigmore Hospital’s car park and expanding community hospitals’ capacity.

Last week the health board confirmed plans to temporarily close the Royal Northern Infirmary in Inverness for work to prepare for a possible second wave of coronavirus.

Mr Mountain said: “During the pandemic we have seen operations reduce by 75 per cent compared to 2019, and a huge reduction in referrals from GPs as patients followed the advice and stayed at home.

“So as NHS Highland seeks to recover and rebuild post pandemic, they face an increasing backlog of cases with a decrease in the number of beds available to treat them in, due to distancing requirements. This is almost the perfect storm.

“After years of centralising health services into Raigmore there is now a huge pressure on the hospital to deliver treatment at a time when social-distancing measures mean the number of beds in each ward have been reduced by around a third.”

He branded delaying the creation of a new North of Scotland Elective Care Centre until 2022 a missed opportunity and added: “Now is surely the time to consider reopening wards in our local hospitals in Invergordon and Golspie.

“Failing that perhaps we need to look at temporary patient accommodation being built in Raigmore.”

Labour regional MSP David Stewart said: “I know from my work on the Scottish Parliament’s health and sport committee that there will be a spike in non-Covid-related deaths due to patients having treatments delayed or because they have not contacted their GP with concerns.

“With almost 400,000 cancer screenings cancelled by the Scottish Government due to the pandemic, the Scottish Government must get it back on track without delay and give health authorities clear guidance about how they can tackle the backlog and also deal with coronavirus.”

Pauline Paxton, national officer with hospital doctors’ union HCSA Scotland, said: “Hospital departments in the NHS Highland region, many of them understaffed, are doing their best, but there is a limit to what they can achieve even without a potential second wave hitting.

“In the short term we may need to pool hospital capacity across the country to look after our most urgent cases.”

In May, NHS Highland bosses raised the possibility of sending patients to the central belt as they missed a range of targets including for cancer treatment, orthopaedic services and mental health.

A health board spokesman said it was due to submit “remobilisation” plans to the Scottish Government this week.

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