Hospital bosses have made progress towards reopening a children’s inpatient ward which has been shut since last summer, Health Secretary Shona Robison said.
The paediatric ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian, has been closed to out-of-hours inpatients since July due to a shortage of staff.
Opposition MSPs pressed the Health Secretary on the long-term future of the the ward in a debate at Holyrood.
Ms Robison told them NHS Lothian had now recruited seven of the eight consultants needed for the paediatric ward to safely open again on a 24/7 basis.
Lothians MSP Neil Findlay said that patients and their parents had been “fobbed off” over the issue.
Staffing concerns about the ward were first highlighted six years ago, he said, adding that since then “things have got a whole lot worse instead of better”.
Two reports from the Royal College of Paediatrics have recommended that the hospital retains a round-the-clock children’s ward, Mr Findlay said, with repeated closures leaving families having to travel to Edinburgh for inpatient treatment.
The Labour MSP said: “Parents don’t want to be fobbed off any longer.
“We need action to make this vital service sustainable. No more shrugs of the shoulders, no more platitudes, no more absence of any sense of urgency, because children’s lives are at stake.”
He called on the Health Secretary to “apologise for this mess and seek help to resolve this unacceptable situation now”.
But Ms Robison said NHS Lothian had “taken a number of steps” to improve staffing at the ward.
She told MSPs six consultants were in place, and interviews carried out in January should result in another medic being taken on.
This, she said, highlighted the health board’s “determination to put in place a safe and sustainable rota to allow the return of a 24/7 service”.
Ms Robison insisted that NHS Lothian “remains committed” to recruiting an eighth consultant to allow the ward to be reopened.
The Health Secretary said: “Seven out of eight consultants is progress being made, yes they have to recruit the eighth consultant … however to say no progress has been made is not a reasonable assessment of the situation.”
She added: “I have asked NHS Lothian to keep me closely appraised of the outcome of their ongoing recruitment efforts and have been assured this continues to be of the very highest priority.”
Labour, Conservative, Green and Liberal Democrat MSPs all stressed the importance of retaining an inpatient facility at St John’s Hospital.
SNP backbencher Gordon Macdonald also spoke in favour of the service, saying: “Having the children’s ward at St John’s prevents some children from being admitted to hospital miles away from home.”
He added: “Lengthy hospital admissions miles away from home have a well documented impact on the well-being of children and a heavy financial and emotional cost to families.
“Therefore treating children closer to home wherever possible is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do and in everyone’s interest.”