Health minister Shona Robison has been accused of putting pressure on the NHS to delay a report into the future of a children’s ward until after the election.
The review by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is expected to recommend the closure of the unit at St John’s Hospital in Livingston.
NHS Lothian requested the findings of the report were published early in 2016 to avoid disruption and uncertainty.
It has now emerged Scottish health minister Shona Robison questioned the timing of the report.
Documents published under freedom of information legislation reveal officials contacted Jim Crombie, senior officer of acute services at NHS Lothian, asking if he would approve a statement delaying publication.
When he was asked for clarification on why the review was to be completed in early 2016, Mr Crombie said that any hold-ups would impact on retention of staff. He said a delay in sending out the report would impact on public confidence.
He wrote: “The danger would be that a protracted process of review would see increasing vacancies and with this an increasing risk of service disruption.”
The official later asked Mr Crombie to approve a statement saying the review would not be completed until Easter and that the board would need a month to consider it. This would coincide with purdah, which restricts public bodies from publishing sensitive material in the lead-up to the election.
In a reply to the Scottish Government official, Mr Crombie said: “We are being bumped into advising something formally.”
Labour MSP for Lothian Neil Findlay, who is campaigning to save the children’s ward at St John’s, described the revelations as “appalling”.
Mr Findlay, who obtained the emails after being told the report would be delayed, said: “Here we have NHS Lothian saying that any delay to this report could lead to staff leaving because of uncertainty over the ward’s future.
“And we have the Cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government seeking to delay the report for party political gain.”
Mr Crombie said the timeline for the review was based on the availability of the “experienced and expert team” from the Royal College of Paediatrics.
He said: “The Royal College indicated that their full review team would not be able to attend in November and December.
“In particular, their lay member, who provides the public engagement perspective, was unavailable.
“NHS Lothian has been clear of the importance of ensuring that the review considers parent, public and stakeholder views, alongside the service and staffing issues and it would have been inappropriate for the Royal College to visit without this key member of their team.
“As a result revised dates for a visit in January were agreed.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The timing of the publication of the independent review into paediatrics at NHS Lothian is a matter for the board.
“These emails are from officials seeking clarification on the reasons for the timing in order to brief ministers and enable the Scottish Government to respond to questions.
“It is entirely normal for government officials to correspond with boards in this way. At no point in these emails is there any attempt from the Scottish Government to alter the timescale of the report. To claim otherwise is simply wrong.
“The NHS Lothian response is absolutely clear that the timeline for the review would be agreed between the board and the Royal College. This remains the case.”
The spokeswoman added: “These emails make clear the Cabinet secretary’s commitment to ensure the unit reopened as soon as possible following the temporary closure last summer.”