A group of Caithness health campaigners are demanding answers over the future of their minor injuries unit.
The unit at Thurso’s Dunbar Hospital, which covers west Caithness and north Sutherland, has been out of action since the start of the pandemic.
But now the signs for it have been covered up, prompting concerns that it may not reopen.
NHS Highland has insisted the closure is temporary and that the unit will reopen when long-time staff vacancies are filled.
Caithness Health Action Team has been campaigning for a number of years about the unit, which was regularly closed for spells well before the onset of Covid.
Vice-chairman Ron Gunn said: “It was very on/off before the pandemic when they blamed staff shortages for the interruptions.
“When we saw the signs had been covered up, I got in touch with the NHS management and was assured that it remains a temporary measure and it was their intention to re-open it as soon as they filled the vacancies.”
Unit is ‘first port of call’ for many
Mr Gunn, who is also chairman of Thurso Community Council, believes the unit plays an important part in easing the pressure on A&E at Caithness General Hospital 20 miles away in Wick.
He added: “The minor injuries unit is very important to this area and people treat it as their local accident and emergency service.
“It was their first port of call and dealt with everything from heart attacks, child births and all sorts of accidents and medical emergencies.”
Chat has vowed to keep a close eye on the situation, after being assured the minor injuries unit will form part of the proposed new west Caithness hub planned as part of a £20million shake-up of health and social care services in the area.
A NHS Highland spokesman said: “The minor injury unit was temporarily closed in March 2020 due to staff shortages and moving some of the team to the Covid assessment centre in Wick.
“That specialist Covid facility is still in operation and the advanced skills of the team working there are very much still required.”
He added the health board has been advertising for a number of months to fill the vacancies at the Dunbar.
“We are working hard to re-establish the rural support team who would support the unit overnight,” he said.
“The closure is temporary. The ongoing pandemic, as well as our staffing challenges, has resulted in the closure being longer than we originally planned for. However, the provision of a unit for the area is part of the Caithness redesign plans and that has not changed.”