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Health board receives petition on travel policy

NHS Shetland chief executive Ralph Roberts (right) receiving a paper petition with over 500 signatures from Bob Birchall. Photo: Shetland News

NHS SHETLAND has received a paper petition with over 500 signatures opposing plans to make ferries the default option for patients travelling to Aberdeen – a policy the health board has already indicated it might abandon.

Yell resident Bob Birchall presented the petition to NHS Shetland chief executive Ralph Roberts at the health board’s Montfield HQ on Monday morning. It comes in addition to an online petition featuring 1,302 signatures.

Roberts said the board was due to discuss the matter again next Tuesday (23 May). After a private meeting on 18 April amid considerable public unrest, chairman Ian Kinniburgh said there “could be an alternative solution”.

NHS Shetland currently spends £2.7 million a year on patient travel, and it was initially hoped that around £1 million could be saved by shifting most patients from plane journeys to ferry trips.

But estimated savings have been downgraded to around £600,000, while talks are continuing with Loganair. It is understood the airline’s offer could save the health board around £250,000 a year.

Handing over his petition, Birchall – who often travels to the mainland for treatment himself – said he had been “a bit disturbed” when the policy was first announced.

“Someone in poor health being stuck outside Aberdeen for three days on the boat, as often happens, you know, that seemed like a disaster to me from my own point of view and others I know,” he said.

Roberts explaining that the health board has listened to public opposition and will discuss patient travel again at a meeting on Tuesday 23 May.

“The other issue is in the summer the ferries are booked sky-high, getting a berth on the ferry can not always be easy during the summer months. We need better transport links – bigger ferries, more capacity, lower fares – it’s quite a wide issue, but my initial reaction was I couldn’t possibly cope with this with my health condition.”

Although “the heat went out of the campaign after the first week”, he felt it was important to have an old-fashioned paper petition to supplement the online ones.

Roberts said the health board had been working on “both the detail of the proposal to move patients who can go no the ferry to the ferry, but also continue negotiations with Loganair”.

Tuesday’s board meeting will be held in public and he said staff would ensure board members were aware of the various petitions, along with all the other information that has been collated, before making a decision.

“The board were very aware that it was going to crate a lot of noise, if you like,” Roberts said. “We’ve had the petitions, we’ve also had a lot of positive comments from people as well, and I think that just reflects how difficult an issue this is.

“It has emphasised some people do like to go on the ferry and dont like to fly; other people really don’t like going on the ferry and prefer to fly, so some of this is about the individual’s personal preferences, and I absolutely understand that.

“We’re also very clear that where it was clinically necessary for people to fly that’s what we’d support people to do.”

With NHS budgets remaining under pressure amid continued public spending cuts across the UK, Roberts said it was important for the health board and the community to work together.

“Wherever you change services some people always feel that that’s a loss, and that’s something we’re going to have to work through as a board with the community, and we need the community to work with us on this,” he said.

“I know individuals have said that they will go on the ferry now. Where people choose to do that and are happy to do that then that’s really helpful because that will save us money, but there will be other things we have to do and look at to make sure the board is financially sustainable.”