Furious mothers are travelling 100 miles to face down health chiefs today in a last-gasp battle against the downgrading of maternity services in Caithness.
Last year, a baby girl died at just 40 hours old from e.coli sepsis at Caithness General Hospital in Wick, sparking an investigation.
As a result, the threshold was lowered for expectant mothers to be transferred to the more wide-ranging paediatric facilities at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
And now, a report to be considered by health board members today, has recommended a permanent downgrade from a consultant-led service to a “midwife-led community maternity unit” in the Far North.
The proposals would see services at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness “strengthened” to provide 24-hour obstetric, neonatal and senior midwifery support.
If board members agree the proposals could be put in place as soon as Thursday.
Members of Caithness Health Action Team (Chat) a campaign group which includes concerned parents, are travelling from Wick to Inverness for the meeting to ask members to delay making a decision for one month to allow questions to be answered.
Nicola Sinclair, a mother and secretary of Chat, said: “A lot of risk factors haven’t been properly addressed or explained so we are asking for a month to get round the table and discuss the concerns that we have, rather than pushing it through too quickly in the face of massive public objection.
“There is serious concern about this, that needs to be addressed.”
She said that people want to know what would happen in a situation when a mother at Caithness General requires an emergency cesarean section.
Ms Sinclair said: “We understand that the recommendation is that an emergency section would ideally be carried out within 30 minutes.
“The average transfer time is two hours 14 minutes. If a low risk pregnancy, where the birth had been allowed to go ahead at Caithness General, suddenly becomes an emergency, what happens to the mother and baby?
“So far the answer has been that they don’t get many emergency sections in low risk pregnancies. There have been two in the last year. In both cases they were operated very quickly by our consultants.
“There needs to be a lot more thought given to this.”
A few weeks ago Eilidh McIntosh from Thurso endured a “nightmare” ambulance journey south which ended with her having to give birth at Golspie.
As part of the general inquiry into the unit, the report considered two stillbirths and three neonatal deaths from 2010 to 2015 and concluded at least two of the deaths were “potentially avoidable”.
Chat chairman Bill Fernie said: “The board has allowed us to submit a statement to the meeting in Inverness. We agree that safety is the main issue but what they’re proposing is not the best way forward.”
He added: “They’ve jumped on the safety bandwagon to sidestep a proper consultation, making it very difficult to bring in other views.”
NHS Highland’s medical director Dr Roderick Harvey said: “Having identified real safety concerns, in my view we must move swiftly to address these concerns and that is the basis of my recommendations.”
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Gail Ross said: “If we know what we’re working towards we can do so as a community. The interim solution cannot continue, we need clarity from NHS Highland about how we move forward and what’s being put in place.
“I’ll continue to support NHS Highland in their efforts to make the services safer for mothers and babies in Caithness and Sutherland – in memory of the babies that died – and to ensure it can never happen again.
“I completely understand why some people in the community feel NHS Highland have gone ahead with recommendations without proper public engagement.”