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Transport / Patient flights rescheduled as NHS prepares for airport closure

Sumburgh airport will be closed on Monday 22 July. Photo: Shetland News

NHS SHETLAND says it is not possible to put an exact figure on how many patients flying out for hospital appointments will be affected by the closure of Sumburgh Airport due to industrial action later this month, but so far eight patients have had their flights cancelled.

The final number for Shetland will likely be higher because the figure does not put into account patients who haven’t contacted patient travel yet, nor does it account for those being discharged from hospital and delayed travelling home.

Patients travelling for hospital appointments from Orkney and the Western Isles will be affected in a similar way.

On Monday, Loganair cancelled all flights to and from Sumburgh and Kirkwall on 22 July, and all Stornoway, Benbecula and Dundee flights on 23 July, following the announcement of further strike action by air traffic controllers.

NHS patient travel manager Yvonne Graham said everyone traveling on strike days will be contacted by her office.

“The alternatives available to patients are: travelling by air the previous day and returning the following day, travelling by ferry rather than air or to reschedule their appointment,” she explained.

“It is taking time for the team to contact all the patients affected. If patients choose to travel by air on the alternative dates there is a cost to NHS Shetland for the reimbursement of accommodation costs in line with the Highlands and Islands Travel Scheme.

“This is not an ideal situation for patients as it adds additional worry at an already stressful experience and puts pressure on the team in patient travel, however, our main aim is to ensure patients can still travel off island for appointments.”

While both sides of the dispute are committed to continuing with the dialogue, there are no fresh talks scheduled.

Air traffic controllers are demanding a pay increase of at least 10 per cent to bring their salaries more in line with what is generally paid across the sector.

But as a public sector organisation, employer Highlands and Islands Airport Limited (HIAL) insists it is restricted by public sector pay policy in what it can offer.

Opposition politicians from across the spectrum, meanwhile, have called on the Scottish Government to intervene to break the deadlock.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said it was “unforgivable” that the SNP government had allowed “things to get to this stage”.

SNP list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Maree Todd, acknowledged that that the strike was creating difficulties for the communities affected, but insisted that it was for HIAL and the Prospect union to find a resolution.

“It is obviously very difficult for the communities affected, and it is not in anyone’s interest for there to be a strike,” she said.

“I don’t think it is helpful at this point for speculation about other parties getting involved.

“HIAL and Prospect are in negotiations and we encourage them to work towards a resolution.”