The Health Secretary has refused to give a target date for the restoration of a round-the-clock service at a children’s ward.
The paediatric ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian, has been closed to out-of-hours inpatients since July 2017 due to staff shortages.
MSPs have repeatedly called for the service to be returned to normal, as hundreds of young patients and their families have faced ambulance transfers to hospital in Edinburgh for treatment.
In an update to Parliament, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said NHS Lothian has put in place an improved recruitment plan, committed to over-recruitment to avoid future staffing problems on the ward and has hired trainees.
She has asked the director-general for health and social care and the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland to review progress on this plan and report to her in January.
She said she shares the anxiety of MSPs and the local community to know when the round-the-clock service will resume, and stressed it is the highest priority for her and the health board, but she would not commit to a target date.
In response to questioning from Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, Ms Freeman said the timescale would be less than the three to five years outlined as needed for a recruitment programme by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Labour’s health spokesman Anas Sarwar said: “It is now six years since the staffing problems at St John’s were identified.
“The 24-hour service closed for the third time in July last year and hasn’t reopened since despite continued promises. This has understandably left families feeling let down, anxious and angry.
“Can the Cabinet Secretary give a target date today, otherwise local families will be left to believe that this is yet again nothing more than warm words and false promises.”
Green MSP Alison Johnstone added: “The fact that there is no target date in sight greatly concerns me.”
Ms Freeman said: “Mr Sarwar asked me for a target date, for me that would constitute warm words and false promises.”
She said she would update Parliament again in January, adding: “At that point I hope to be able to say when we expect the full 24/7 service to return and whether or not there are interim steps in terms of extending the service that are possible between January and that final date, and I will do it then.”
Following the debate, Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs said: “This statement from the new Health Secretary doesn’t suggest the SNP is any further forward in reopening the children’s ward at St John’s.”
He said he fears the partial closure will continue “indefinitely”.
NHS Lothian deputy chief executive Jim Crombie said three new trainee advanced nurse practitioners have been appointed.
“These new posts show our commitment to restoring the service as quickly as possible and are a really exciting breakthrough.
“Our previous recruitment campaigns did not provide the numbers of medical staff necessary for the continuous out-of-hours cover that we need, so we have had to create smarter ways of delivering safe, effective and sustainable paediatric inpatient services for children in Lothian.
“The new recruits will take up full duties as soon as their rigorous training is complete.
“It is important to remember that in this last year, significant numbers of children have continued to be seen, assessed, had diagnostic tests and been treated then discharged home from our services which have been sustained at St John’s Hospital.”