Plans to pause work on a new £160m hospital in Lochaber have been described as “catastrophic” by locals who have been calling for an upgrade for more than two decades.
The Belford Hospital in Fort William was due to be replaced in 2028 due to increased pressure on its A&E department.
However, the Scottish Government has made a U-turn on the decision, advising health boards across the country to pause new capital projects.
They have blamed it on a 10% cut in real terms funding from the UK Government, which also affects an upgrade at Caithness General Hospital in Wick.
For locals in Fort William, a replacement Belford Hospital has been more than 20 years in the waiting.
With more than 10,000 admissions each year, the 60-year-old hospital serves people across a wide geographical area.
Scottish Lib Dem councillor Angus MacDonald described the situation as an “absolute tragedy”.
He said: “We heard that Belford Hospital funding is not going to happen at all. All the plans are done, it was all set to go, 2026 is when the funding was going to be in place.
“Anyway, we’ve been told for the foreseeable future there’s no funding available.
“Everyone is distraught.
“There’s four or five thousand people that visit the town every year for things like climbing on the Ben to all sorts of activities – they all use it for emergency purposes so to say it is a catastrophe is an understatement.”
In 2015, a site was bought for the replacement hospital at Blar Mhor with ground inspections taking place as recently as November.
Local resident Michael Foxley said: “It has the busiest accident and emergency department of all the six rural general hospitals; at times it’s half as busy as Raigmore (in Inverness) and that’s because of mountain accidents and road traffic collisions and injuries like that.
“It’s a very, very busy A&E and that’s why we need a new hospital with the appropriate accident and emergency unit.”
Local MSP Kate Forbes has called an urgent meeting with NHS Highland – but a resolution isn’t likely to be reached until revised Scottish Government spending plans in the spring.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As set out in our draft budget the capital funding position is extremely challenging.
“The UK Government did not inflation-proof its capital budget which has resulted in nearly a 10% real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s capital funding over the medium-term between 2023-24 and 2027-28.
“Our emphasis for the immediate future will be on addressing backlog maintenance and essential equipment replacement.
“Our Infrastructure Investment Plan (2021-22 to 2025-26) identified the priority health capital projects for funding within that period.
“As a result of the cut in our capital budget, a revised Infrastructure Investment Plan will be published in spring 2024 and all due consideration will be given to what projects can be included within that revised Plan. In the interim, boards have also been advised to pause any new capital projects.”
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