A senior doctor who helped establish the specialist maternity service in Moray fears other services at the flagship hospital could be affected if the current downgrade is allowed to last a year.
The children’s ward at Dr Gray’s is currently closed overnight and at weekends while medium and high-risk labours are transferred to Aberdeen or Inverness.
NHS Grampian has been given a Friday deadline by the Scottish Government to draw up a plan to bring the Elgin hospital back to full strength – but has warned the process to implement changes could take up to a year.
Now retired consultant David Evans, who was among the doctors who helped establish the specialist maternity unit, has encouraged those in charge to act quicker to avert the “near destruction” of the service he helped to build.
He said: “If the current situation is allowed to go on for a year, I think there’s a very real risk that the key staff who are still present are likely to look elsewhere.
“If that happens then all the services at Dr Gray’s could go down like dominos, one after the other.
“The whole expansion of the hospital was predicated on the maternity unit – that allowed the theatres to expand, orthopaedics to expand and the surgical service to expand.
“Without the maternity unit, I don’t see how the hospital can survive as the small district hospital that it is now. They need to sort it out.”
NHS Grampian has repeatedly insisted it is committed to preserving the specialist maternity unit at Dr Gray’s – stressing that the current downgrade is solely down to an inability to attract junior doctors and that the hospital still has a “bright future”.
Yesterday, they health authority explained staffing structures had been modified in recent years to develop a more “resilient” model.
However, Dr Evans, who retired in 2008, believes asking women to travel to Aberdeen or Inverness borders on “negligence” – fearing the proposals could open the NHS to huge damages claims if there was a “disaster” en route.
He said: “I can’t accept that what has been put in place is safe. I accept it’s not possible to produce staff to rectify the situation overnight but it needs to be accepted that what is in place is a risky, unnecessary gamble.
“They’re asking people to accept that all will be well during the long journey to Aberdeen.”
He added: “If they were truly committed to Dr Gray’s then they would say ‘We have, for example, 10 paediatricians here, we will send them up to work a week at a time.’”
The Scottish Government’s health secretary Jeane Freeman gave NHS Grampian an ultimatum to draw up a recovery plan for the hospital when she visited Elgin earlier this month.
Dr Evans described himself as “encouraged” by the minister’s approach to the situation.
A series of meetings began at the weekend and will continue this week to encourage locals to get involved with officials to devise solutions to end the crisis.
Dr Evans said: “Personally, it’s very distressing to the see the hospital like it is now with midwives and obstetricians demoralised at the continual chipping away at the service.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Grampian stressed that Dr Gray’s is not “under threat” and management are committed to maintaining services in Elgin.
She added: “While services do work closely together, there have been a number of improvements to staffing structures over the last few years which have led to a more resilient hospital overall.
“We continue to build on that work and will be strengthening it further shortly with the planned introduction of a dedicated hospital at night staffing structure.”
The previous Keep Mum pressure group fought through the 1980s to press for an upgraded specialist maternity unit in Moray.
Campaigners pleaded for improvements amidst tales of mums being transported to Aberdeen while in labour having to cut the journey short in order to give birth.
After an investigation it was decided by the Scottish Office in 1990 that the best option to expand the range of services was to expand Dr Gray’s on its current site.
Construction on the £22million project began in 1993 and took nearly four years to complete.
The first stage, which was opened in 1995, included new wards for children and surgery. A specialist maternity service was also opened with a four-cot special care baby unit.
The existing operating theatre was upgraded and three new ones were also opened as well as new staff facilities.
The second stage was completed in January 1997 and included a new psychiatric ward as well as an improved accident and emergency department and out-patient clinics.
The final stage was an overhaul of the original hospital building, which was opened in 1819.