Health campaigners have welcomed a £800,000 investment in Caithness General Hospital.
Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman yesterday said work will start shortly to upgrade the accident and emergency unit and create a new outpatient department and maternity unit at the Wick hospital.
It marks the first stage in the redesign the hospital as part of a £30 million blueprint to rejig health and care services in the far north.
Bill Fernie, who chairs Caithness Health Action Team, welcomed the planned work which is due to be completed by the end of March 2021.
He however added the caveat that NHS Highland needs to ensure the design takes account of changes likely to be needed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “All the indications are that we are going to have to adapt our lives to live with the virus.
“That extends to hospitals and the statistics are showing that with Covid-19 being so widespread, there have been huge drops in attendance at A&E units – as much as 50% in some areas.
“People are increasingly wary about going to hospital because of the perceived risk of contracting the virus and so I hope this will be taken into account in the changes going ahead at Caithness General.”
Mr Fernie said it has been long recognised that the hospital’s A&E unit is cramped and lacks waiting space.
He also qualified his welcomed for the new community midwifery unit, saying: “It’s a big plus that we’re seeing investment in it but it remains a big minus that it will continue to have a very low number of births until the health board changes its policy which sees nearly all Caithness babies being delivered in Raigmore Hospital.”
NHS Highland chairman Boyd Robertson said: “This is great news for Caithness General Hospital and the people of Caithness.
“The accident and emergency department has required more space for a number of years and the establishment of a state-of-the-art birthing unit will support the health and well-being of mothers and babies in their local area.
“This is a very welcome first step in delivering the wider development plan for the site.”
Ms Freeman said: “Even as we respond to the pandemic, the Scottish Government remains committed to building the capacity and capability of Scotland’s NHS, and improving access to care.
“The new maternity unit and extended A&E will be a great asset for the local community and I look forward to seeing construction works progress over the next year.”