NHS chief defends controversial Caithness maternity changes

Caithness campaigners took their protest to Highland Council's Wick offices and NHS Highland's Inverness headquarters.

Controversial changes to maternity services in Caithness have been passionately defended by the head of NHS Highland.

Health board chairman David Alston said that “deep down inside” he believes the shake-up was the correct decision.

In 2015, NHS Highland lowered the threshold for sending expectant mothers to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness after the “potentially avoidable” death of a baby girl from the e.coli sepsis infection just 40 hours after being born in Wick.

Since then, there have been protests in Caithness as more and more expectant mothers are sent on the 100-mile journey to the Highland capital.

Mr Alston dismissed claims by campaigners that a move to turn the Wick maternity unit from consultant-led to midwives-led represented a “downgrade”.

He said: “I feel deep down inside we’ve made the right decision. The bottom line is that a baby died that shouldn’t have died. That happened because we made the wrong decision 12 years ago.

“That’s a mixed feeling that we got it wrong, but we put it right. And I refuse to accept that that is a downgrade in service. What kind of language are we talking if a safer service is a downgrading?”

Asked about numerous “horror stories” of trips from Caithness to Inverness going wrong in recent months, Mr Alston said: “The horror story is holding on when it’s inappropriate and not travelling down the A9, and that’s what happened when it went wrong.

“The key to it is good decision-making and assessment of risk. I think we’ve got an excellent team of midwives in Caithness. We need to support them and empower them, so that they make the decisions that they are trained to make, that’s how you lessen the risk.

“We do need to look at the partnership with the ambulance service, there are discussions, not just in Caithness but across the Highlands, about if there is an adequate resource.”