Ambulance bosses have been accused of leaving huge parts of the Highlands with “drastically reduced” emergency cover.
Unite, the UK’s biggest trade union, raised fresh concerns yesterday about the “dangerous practice” of routinely using ambulances to carry out long patient transfers to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
Skye, Fort William and Caithness were said to be among the areas left without adequate cover for emergencies as a result of the trend.
The Scottish Ambulance Service said it was aware of the pressures and had recruited 12 new staff in the Highlands since last year.
Unite’s regional officer Richard Whyte said: “Our members in Skye, Fort William and Caithness are becoming increasingly frustrated and concerned about the dangerous practice of routinely putting emergency ambulances onto long patient transfers to Raigmore Hospital.
“This should only be done as a last resort and when a medical reason requires it.
“However it would seem that Highland communities are being left with drastically reduced emergency cover while crews transport patients to Inverness.”
He added: “Sometimes before the ambulances can return to their own communities, they are being sent to cover calls in the Inverness area.
“Our workplace representatives have raised concerns with the management of the Scottish Ambulance Service about these problems, and about the length of working hours that sometimes results.”
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has raised concerns with the service after receiving complaints from constituents about the number of ambulances to cover Caithness.
“I am worried about the ambulance service’s ability to cope, not only in Caithness but, it appears, on Skye and in Fort William,” she said.
“The Scottish Ambulance Service has two roles; an emergency service and a patient transport service. It does neither well in the Highlands and islands.”
A Scottish Ambulance Service spokesman said: “The Scottish Ambulance Service is aware of pressures on inter-hospital transfers and we are working on this with NHS Highland.
“We are also aware of the need to keep emergency cover in the area. Calls are responded to based on patient need.
“This means sending patients the most appropriate response, which if they have an immediately life-threatening condition such as cardiac arrest will be the closest available resource.
“There is a range of responses we can send to emergencies, including air and land ambulances as well as first responders, and we continue to work closely with our partners and communities to ensure we deliver the safest and most effective service.
“As part of the £5million additional investment in the service, we have also recruited 12 staff into new posts across the Highland area since April 2016.”