Highland health chiefs provoked fury last night by announcing the “temporary” closure of an emergency care unit at a hospital in Caithness.
NHS Highland revealed late yesterday afternoon that Dunbar Hospital in Thurso had to close its minor injury unit and primary care emergency centre for 48 hours from 8am today.
The health board said the action was required “due to extreme staffing concerns” causing “safety concerns” at the hospital.
The move emerged amid ongoing anger in Caithness at the “downgrading” of services – and fuelled fears last night that the units could close permanently.
One north MSP said it would only “add to the angst of patients in the county who had already had a pretty bad deal.”
NHS Highland is directing patients to go to emergency departments at Caithness General Hospital instead.
It has blamed the problems recruiting staff with the necessary qualifications.
The statement read: “This is having an impact across the unit and the in-patient beds at the Dunbar – the latter area being where we now need to focus our staff to ensure we deliver safe effective care to our current patients.”
The health board said services had been “kept going” due to the dedication of staff working extra shifts to cover the staffing shortfall.
“However, extra staffing issues have emerged recently which have made continuing this stop-gap solution untenable,” it said.
“Because of safety concerns, the hospital management has taken the decision to close the unit temporarily until such time that it can be safely fully staffed again.”
NHS Highland promised “extra efforts” to re-advertise the posts for the necessary qualified staff in order to reopen the unit “as soon as possible”.
The statement ended with an apology “for any inconvenience caused”.
The decision infuriated local health campaigners who have fought a long battle against a raft of NHS cutbacks in the far north, including the recent “downgrading” of maternity services at Caithness General which leaves many pregnant mothers having to travel 100 miles to Raigmore in Inverness.
Nicola Sinclair, secretary of the pressure group the Caithness Health Action Team (Chat), feared the latest announcement is a precursor of permanent closure of the Dunbar units.
The issues featured in a debate last week about future services attended by Chat, NHS executives, the ambulance service, patient representatives and Highland Council.
Mrs Sinclair said: “They spoke about the need to change their health and social care model.
“They told us it was a ‘high level presentation’ and that it wasn’t working currently and that they needed a completely new approach.
“Our concern about the way they were talking – they mentioned that too much of the budget is tied up in buildings – and that Caithness has three hospitals, which is excessive, apparently.
“Our concern was that they were hinting at closing the Dunbar.
“Obviously, we expressed very strong concerns about that and about any bed closures because they don’t have the care in the community in place currently.
“There’s not the capacity of early care at the moment, and we were worried they were going to put the cart before the horse and close beds before they had the necessary support structures in place.
“But we were assured there’d be a full public consultation, which is what they said about maternity as well.
“I’m worried about the timing of this announcement. It’s probably building up to a bigger plan to close the Dunbar altogether which, obviously, we’d be really opposed to.”
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “Given the issues we’ve had with ambulance cover in Caithness, this is going to add more pressure.
“If somebody can’t get themselves through they’re going to have to dial 999. If they’re bleeding, for example, that in itself maybe isn’t life-threatening but it will need urgent attention.”
She added: “Obviously, if staff are off sick there’s nothing you can do but surely you can look at back-filling and getting agency staff to cover.”