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NorthLink: no ‘direct talks’ with health board on patient travel

NHS Shetland voted in favour of sending the majority of its patients for treatment in Aberdeen via the ferry.

NORTHLINK managing director Stuart Garrett says NHS Shetland has not had any “direct talks” with the ferry operator over its plans to send patients south for treatment on the boat rather than by plane.

He added that bookings will continue to be made on a “first come, first served” basis once NHS Shetland starts to use the service to send patients to Aberdeen for appointments in the coming months.

The health board came under fire last week after it voted to scrap its default policy of flying patients south who are in need of medical treatment.

It is estimated that the move could save the health board around £1 million from its £2.7 million patient travel budget, but opponents of the policy have questioned those figures.

A online petition set up by Shetland south mainland resident Hugh Harrop in protest against the move has now received 1,100 signatures.

He said the petition “politely” requests that the health board reconsiders its decision.

NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett.

Garrett said in a statement released on Thursday that NorthLink would welcome any discussion with the health board on patient travel.

“We are aware of the changes for patient transfer currently being discussed by NHS Shetland,” he said.

“They are not currently a major user of our ferry services as they primarily depend on air services and although there has so far been no direct talks with us we would of course be very happy to discuss any proposed changes with them.”

After the health board’s meeting on the matter, Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell – who voted against the proposal – raised concerns that the move may reduce cabin availability on the lifeline ferry service.

Garrett confirmed there would be no change to the way NorthLink deals with cabin bookings.

“Our main responsibility is to the people, businesses and tourists of the Northern Isles and we have no plans to change the way customers can book cabins, which is on a first come, first served basis, he said.”

If patients still wish to travel by air they can claim back a portion of their fare up to the value of the ferry journey the NHS would otherwise have paid for.

Patients travelling to attend appointments in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness or specialist centres in England will not be affected by the changes and will continue to fly.

Those not expected to take the ferry will include children, pregnant women in their third trimester and patients travelling for cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

Speaking on BBC Radio Shetland on Wednesday evening, Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said sending the majority of patients on the boat was an “utterly bizarre idea”.

“It strikes me that it has not been properly been thought through,” he said.

“It’s certainly not been the subject of what I would consider, and which people who talk to me, consider to be adequate consultation, so I think there’s a need to take his back to the drawing board.”

He added that travel to and from the isles is “part of the care – your care does not begin and end just when you’re in seeing the doctor.”

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