Healthcare provision at mothballed Insch Hospital could shift to Inverurie despite a promise from the first minister to reopen the facility.
Nicola Sturgeon made the pledge about the community hospital during the last Holyrood election campaign.
But more than a year on and the facility remain closed, with decisions still to be made over the future of in-patient beds at the site.
This has led Ms Sturgeon to be accused of rolling back on her pledge.
The site closed its doors due to staffing pressures at the start of the pandemic and a review of health services in Insch was launched in May 2021.
A report to the Aberdeenshire Integration Joint Board on Wednesday laid out a list of potential options to its members.
Its recommendations – which were agreed five votes to three – include exploring four options for new build facilities.
Inverurie option on table
One controversial option would instead see in-patient capacity at Inverurie Hospital increase with a new build or extension.
This would mean no in-patient beds at Insch Hospital – a move that is fiercely opposed by the local community.
Speaking during her visit to Insch ahead of last year’s Holyrood election, Ms Sturgeon pledged to reopen the hospital.
She said: “I am determined Insch War Memorial Hospital will reopen and I think any suggestion it wouldn’t is unacceptable.
“While the health board is the decision maker here, as first minister I would not find it acceptable to have a hospital like this not reopening.”
It emerged during Wednesday’s meeting that the Aberdeenshire Health and Social Care Partnership have only met the Scottish Government once to discuss the plans.
This meeting took place last month – a year since the first minister first made the election commitment while on the campaign trail in Insch.
The board were told there would be “no accelerated approach” for taking an eventual preferred option forward.
Instead, a business case would need to be submitted to the Scottish Government which would “compete against other areas of Scotland for capital investment”.
The community hospital normally has 11 beds for patients only requiring the care of a GP or those in rehabilitation following surgery or illness, as well as a palliative care suite.
The health and social care partnership had said the current hospital does not comply with healthcare standards for in-patient accommodation.
‘Promised in no uncertain terms’
Scottish Conservative MSP for Aberdeenshire West, Alexander Burnett, who has campaigned to keep the hospital open, said: “It’s absolutely vital this prized facility remains at Insch which is why I’m categorically against the option of moving services to Inverurie.
“Forcing patients from places such as Insch, Strathdon, Rhynie and Pitcaple to go elsewhere is not the answer to improving local healthcare.”
MSP Alexander Burnett is appealing for the Insch War Memorial Hospital to be reopened.Frank Musgrave, from Bennachie Community Centre, who lives in Oyne, told board members the hospital is “really valued by the local population”.
He said the community had been “underwhelmed” by the public consultation on delivering health care in Insch – which contained “no questions” on the hospital.
Mr Musgrave local expectation “has of course been influenced” by the visit of the first minister in May 2021.
Chris Humphries, from Friends of Insch Hospital and Community, said the group wants to see beds reoepened at the site as a “matter of urgency”.
He said the Inverurie option would create further “uncertainty” over the future of healthcare provision in Insch.
The board also agreed to instruct officers to make arrangements for alternative in-patient facilities for Insch patients that can be achieved within existing budgets, until a new build facility becomes available.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We understand that Aberdeenshire Health and Social Partnership has completed a health needs assessment and that it will consult the public on four potential options.
“This will allow the health and social care partnership to identify its preferred option and set out the reasons in a business case to be sent to the Scottish Government for review.
“We are fully committed to supporting services being delivered from the Insch War Memorial Hospital and we look forward to receiving the business case in due course.”