Maternity campaigners angry over health secretary’s ‘snub’

Campaigners want full maternity services restored at Caithness General Hospital.

Hospital campaigners claim they were snubbed by the health secretary during her visit to Wick.

Jeane Freeman met staff at Caithness General Hospital during a whirlwind three-day trip to the Highlands and Moray.

She visited the hospital’s Henderson Ward and chatted to a number of health workers, including midwives, along with local SNP MSP Gail Ross.

But campaigners who have fought for a restoration of full maternity services were furious when they learned the minister had not made time to meet them.

The pressure group, the Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT), said it had made numerous requests for a meeting.

It posted online: “Clearly we are not worthy of her time and she is only interested in listening to those in ‘authority’ positions.”

It added: “Congratulations. You have made our community group feel disempowered and disrespected.”

CHAT wrote to the minister last month to appeal for “an urgent review of our maternity model in Caithness”.

It claimed that the local maternity service was “not a safe model because of the increased risk during travel and uncertain transfers of labouring women”.

It said more than 100 mothers-to-be were transferred to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness – more than 100 miles away – last year.

Campaigners pointed out that during 2019, there were only nine births out of 152 in Caithness General.

“This has an effect on most of our mothers and their families,” they wrote.

“Additionally, there were very high levels of inductions in Raigmore – 83 out of 152 for Caithness mothers.”

Nicola Sinclair, a founder of CHAT, said: “I wrote to the minister a year ago requesting that she visit Caithness to discuss the challenges facing our healthcare services.

“One of her aides wrote back informing me she had no plans to come up.

“To have now finally made that visit but excluded local councillors, community groups and campaigners feels to me like an opportunity missed. Closing the door to dialogue will only heighten public frustration.”

Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said she was “puzzled” that the minister did not meet CHAT representatives while in Caithness.

“Even to invite a small number of representatives would have shown a respect for the obvious concerns of people in the area,” Grant said.

NHS Highland’s head of midwifery Mary Burnside said: “The birth rate for women in the Midwife-Led Community Unit (CMUs) in Caithness is comparable to the other CMUs in NHS Highland for 2017 and 2018.

“However, we have seen a significant drop in birth numbers for 2019, where women who could have given birth in Caithness CMU are choosing to give birth in the Consultant Unit at Raigmore Hospital. NHS Highland is exploring the reasons for this.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the Health Secretary “replied to CHAT in detail last week.”

She added: “We’ve no record of a request from CHAT to meet Ms Freeman during the visit.

“To provide further reassurance, the chief medical officer has arranged to meet the medical director of NHS Highland to discuss CHAT’s concerns and the suggestions for improvements which CHAT have made.”

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