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Coronavirus / Leap in coronavirus patient transfer capacity announced

New planes and isolation ‘pods’ to be brought in

Eight Epishuttle pods are being procured.

INCREASED air ambulance capacity and new equipment have been announced to help evacuate patients with Covid-19 from the islands.

Loganair is providing two additional converted aircraft, one of which will be operational from Friday 3 April and the other within the next 14 days.

And eight “Epishuttles” – adult sized isolation pods – are being bought which will provide additional protection for patients and health service staff during transfers.

The increases in air ambulance capacity were announced by health secretary Jeanne Freeman in the Scottish Parliament today (Wednesday).

The first two Epishuttles are undergoing tests by Scottish Ambulance Service, two more will be received on 17 April and a further four by mid-May.

The two Loganair planes will be fitted with Epishuttles to enable transfers from isles with suitable runways. Loganair said that the first converted Twin Otter will be operational from Friday. The second, larger, Saab 340 will be fitted for two Epishuttle pods.

The aircraft will be based at Glasgow Airport but can operate throughout Scotland. Loganair pilots will be operating the aircraft, and last week were briefed by the airline and the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS), according to Loganair.

Scottish minister for social security Jeane Freeman. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland NewsHealth secretary Jeane Freeman. Photo: Shetland News

The ambulance service said that the £500,000 Epishuttle investment “would allow the service to ensure patients receive the highest possible standards of care whilst increasing capacity for complex transfers involving Covid-19 patients, such as those from remote and Island communities”.

“The Scottish Ambulance Service is working in partnership with Transport Scotland, Loganair and the RAF to increase the range of transport options available for Covid-19 transfers,” it added.

In the meantime, Freeman said, the RAF is providing cover for transfers off the islands, using two Puma helicopters based at Lossiemouth which can transfer patients without Epishuttles.

And the SAS will be able to deploy their “expert retrieval team” to support island ambulance colleagues and have the patient ready for transfer ahead of the military “air asset”.

She said that patients from islands without suitable airstrips would be lifted by helicopter.

Freeman added: “As always, the decision as to whether or not a patient requires to be airlifted will be made by skilled clinicians involved in the patients care. Patient safety remains our number one priority.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart welcomed the measures.

She said: “I am pleased to see that protocols for patient transfer are now properly in place with increased capacity.

“With patients in Shetland some of the furthest away from intensive care in Scotland, it is vital that there is no hold up in using any of these assets. There are unconfirmed reports that the first patient transfer took 20 hours. It is important that lessons have been learnt and that the actions outlined today ensure future transfers are done much more quickly.”

Her Orkney parliamentary colleague Liam McArthur said: “The Covid-19 outbreak is putting unprecedented pressure on our healthcare and emergency services.  In our island communities, there are additional challenges in terms of transferring patients in need of specialist treatment, particularly those in vulnerable groups who require urgent assistance.

“Following concerns raised with me by island clinicians, I held discussions with both SAS and Loganair last week to find out what steps were being taken to expand the capacity of air ambulance provision. It was encouraging to hear the progress that had already been made at that stage, and I am pleased that the Health Secretary has now confirmed the new arrangements now in place.”

“Making use of Loganair aircraft in this way makes perfect sense, given the crisis we face and the collapse in air travel.  Indeed, I would encourage both SAS and Loganair to continue exploring other opportunities to develop this relationship and increase capacity, if necessary.”

Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston, meanwhile, said: “Our thanks must go to the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Royal Air Force who are providing this extra resource, as well as to Loganair who are providing two extra aircraft to support efforts.

“As with our communities, our public and private services are coming together to fight this virus.”

A patient with Covid-19 was flown from Sumburgh to Aberdeen by air ambulance flight on 22 March, using a relatively large RAF transport plane.

The first coronavirus cases have also been announced in Orkney (two) and the Western Isles (three) while numbers who have tested positive for the disease in Shetland rose today to 30.