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MSP to query NHS travel policy at Holyrood

NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh.

NHS SHETLAND says it remains fully committed to making an overnight ferry trip the default option for most medical patients travelling to Aberdeen – amid stern opposition and an effort from MSP Tavish Scott to have the decision overturned.

On Tuesday the health board voted 6-4 to send most patients on NorthLink’s 12-hour ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen rather than a short plane journey in the hope of saving £1 million from its £2.7 million patient travel budget.

The decision will take effect from April and has drawn a mixed response, with several local politicians voicing dismay and many – though by no means all – islanders criticising the move.

MSP Scott said he would be raising the matter at Holyrood on Thursday, saying he hopes First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will “take this issue seriously”.

NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh said Scott was “within his rights to seek to have the decision overturned” but it would “still leave us with the problem of trying to find an equivalent amount of savings from somewhere else within our clinical services”.

He said the health board “remain committed to making this work in a way that both safeguards the provision of clinical services for folk living in Shetland and at the same time minimises as far as we possibly can the disruption to patients”.

Kinniburgh said NHS Shetland would do all it could to “reduce trips off-island to an absolute minimum”, but any savings gleaned from doing so would be in addition to the estimated £1 million savings from switching from flights to boat journeys.

Plans to make the 12-14 hour overnight NorthLink ferry journey the default option for patients has caused concern among many in the community.

Scott said he had been contacted “by many Shetlanders concerned about how this change will affect them”.

“Not everyone will be able to wait for their flight costs to be reimbursed, effectively forcing them to accept they must travel for 24 hours – at least –  just to get to their appointments and home again,” the MSP said.

“Nor will some people be able to pay the difference between sea and air. People, especially older folk, are very worried. Some have been close to tears on the phone today [Wednesday].”

Fifty three year old Heather Summers, from Lerwick, was diagnosed with a heart condition as a child and travels down annually to see a consultant, as well as regularly to get treatment for joint problems.

She was full of praise for the treatment she has received from the NHS over the years, but feels it is “disappointing they put something out like that without thinking the whole thing through, the pros and cons of how it would affect folk”.

Summers is particularly concerned about the impact on elderly folk – her father, who is nearly 78, travels down for appointments every few months and her self-employed husband Colin accompanies him as an escort.

Her father spends two nights in hospital, and adding two overnight ferry sailings would mean each trip lasting four nights – resulting in her husband missing out on more earnings.

“I feel the decision is affecting the most vulnerable folk in Shetland that’s needing the most help.”

Labour’s Highlands and Islands list MSP Rhoda Grant said she was “appalled” by the decision: “Imagine if you are unwell and on a ferry for that length of time,” she said. “It beggars belief that as a caring society we should be asking patients to do this when there’s the alternative of a short flight there and back.”

Kinniburgh told Shetland News the health board was “clearly aware of the significant level of concern” and had “anticipated that this would cause a degree of upset among folk, because it’s a very significant thing to do”.

Asked about the level of consultation involved, he said NHS Shetland had discussed the matter with clinical groups and the patient forum, and highlighted its plans to both NorthLink and Loganair, but acknowledged there had not been a full public consultation.

MSP Tavish Scott wants the decision overturned and will raise the matter at Holyrood on Thursday.

“Have we gone out to the public and asked them ‘do you think this is a good idea’? No we haven’t, and to be honest… for consultation to be meaningful we’d really have to have alternatives.”

He said the idea of using Red Cross escorts at Sumburgh and Aberdeen airports had been considered, but there were “significant misgivings” about how it would work in practice and would only have saved around £250,000.

“In an ideal world, the likes of [board member and SIC convener] Malcolm Bell are absolutely correct – what we would want to do would be to reduce off-island trips to an absolute minimum,” Kinniburgh continued.

He said NHS Shetland had repeatedly stressed this to NHS Grampian but it was “incredibly difficult to get everyone on board because NHS Grampian employ a huge number of consultants who all do their own thing when it comes to calling patients in for appointments”.

The health board is encouraging people to challenge consultants over whether trips are necessary, but Kinniburgh said he understood some might feel “quite intimated” about questioning medical professionals and “we’d help support patients who wish to challenge decisions”.

Following questions over whether it would be permissible for individuals to use the Air Discount Scheme (ADS) to book flights for NHS appointments when the scheme is not meant for business use, Kinniburgh said the matter had been raised with Transport Scotland.

Government officials have confirmed that ADS will not apply to such passengers, with a spokeswoman confirming to Shetland News that “the scheme is not for the benefit of public bodies or private companies or to subsidise their travel costs”.