Health chiefs in the north-east have billed taxpayers for almost £1.3 million to jet off on foreign trips in the last few years, it can be revealed.
New figures show that staff at NHS Grampian have been sent on 1,530 overseas visits since 2010/11 – with the number of trips rising almost annually to a high of 293 last year.
The total bill was the highest in Scotland, with the nation’s two largest health boards, NHS Greater Glasgow and NHS Lothian, both spending less than £1 million between 2010/11 and 2016/17.
NHS Grampian racked up a £215,729 bill for overseas travel in 2016/17 alone.
It compared to £5,167 at NHS Tayside, a £7,000 spend at NHS Forth Valley, a £7,926 bill at NHS Western Isles, £20,932 at NHS Dumfries and Galloway, £23,000 at NHS Lanarkshire, £41,138 at NHS Ayrshire and £158,383 at NHS Lothian.
Only NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde spent more that year, at £221,484, while there was no spending on overseas travel recorded by NHS Orkney or NHS Borders and NHS Highland is still to publish its figures.
NHS Grampian – which is Scotland’s joint lowest funded health board and made £27.7 million of savings last year – hit the headlines last year when bosses embarked on a recruitment trip to Australia.
The visit was hailed a success after attracting significant interest and leading to the appointment of several new nurses.
But Tom Mason, Scottish Conservative MSP for the north-east region, said questions remained about the spending levels.
“It is well documented that NHS Grampian recently sent a delegation to Australia on a successful drive to recruit nurses,” he said.
“However, the cost of that initiative was reported at £20,000 – just a fraction of the six-figure annual sums revealed by the P&J.
“It is also concerning that the number of trips increased by more than 50% from 2015/16 to 2017/18.
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“Patients in the north-east will find it hard to accept that this money could not be better spent on frontline services.
“The health board should look very carefully at foreign travel spending to ensure it can be justified amid so much belt-tightening elsewhere.”
Published data also shows that NHS Grampian staff have spent £734,479 on “hospitality” and “reasonable refreshment” at key meetings since 2010/11.
Defending the bill, an NHS Grampian spokeswoman said: “As an organisation, NHS Grampian sees great value in facilitating trips to conferences and training, allowing staff to improve and learn new skills, share good practice and in turn share their experiences with their colleagues on their return.
“These trips can also be to promote the organisation and the benefits of working at a centre of excellence in the north-east of Scotland.
“For example, the recent recruitment trip to Australia cost £20,000 and we are now in the process of welcoming 50 new nurses to the fold.
“There are very clear guidelines and procedures to be adhered to before these trips are sanctioned.
“We have 17,000 staff and it’s important to invest in their development and learning and ensure the Grampian is seen as an exciting place to work.
“Staff can be from some of our most rural areas and flight and rail travel from Aberdeen is always more expensive.”