SNP criticised as full re-opening of St John's Hospital children's ward could be delayed until 2024

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The ward was due to return to 24/7 opening hours in October.

MSPs have lambasted the SNP after an FOI request revealed the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston could take up to five years to fully re-open.

The paediatric unit, which was closed for 18 months in summer 2017 due to staff shortages but reopened four nights a week in March, was due to return to 24/7 service in October.

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But the ward failed to fully re-open as planned, and it has now emerged it may be as late as 2024 before it does so.

Campaigners call for the re-opening of the ward.Campaigners call for the re-opening of the ward.
Campaigners call for the re-opening of the ward.

Minutes from a June meeting of the Paediatric Programme Board (PPB) obtained by the Scottish Conservatives state that the PPB is ‘committed’ to opening the ward 24/7.

But they reveal NHS Lothian was advised by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) that this ‘would take 3-5 years to achieve’.

Martin Hill, Vice Chair of the NHS Lothian Board, said in the meeting that it ‘would appear to be ambitious to consider opening 24/7 for seven days at this stage’.

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Neonatologist Ben Stenson added that the service was ‘currently finding it challenging to open four days,’ and that ‘with patient safety being the prime consideration; it would be unwise to extend this further at the moment.’

The PPB agreed unanimously not to try and fully re-open at that stage in June, but this decision was not made public until September.

Reduced paediatric hours at St John’s has also put more pressure on the Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh, whose new building due to open in July was delayed at the last minute.

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “The SNP is failing sick children and their families right across the country.

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“It’s bad enough that the flagship paediatric hospital in Edinburgh has been delayed for almost a decade on its watch, but now we learn there are major delays in West Lothian too.

“For more than two years a key children’s unit – which has historically served young patients on a 24/7 basis – has been downgraded.

“Jeane Freeman promised this would be sorted by October, only to admit that wasn’t happening, and now we learn a full reopening could be five years away.

Labour MSP for Lothian Neil Findlay said: “We are now looking at almost a decade of SNP failure of our NHS and the ongoing saga of St John’s has caused years of stress and drudgery for countless ill children and their families.

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“Not only has Jeane Freeman broke her promise to re-open St John’s by this October but we still have no idea when it will re-open.

“The revelation that the decision not to re-open St. John’s was taken several weeks before parliament was informed shows how little regard the SNP have for protocol and common decency. How many children and their families were given false hope?"

Lothians MSP and Scottish Greens health spokesperson Alison Johnstone said: ““The health secretary has blamed ongoing difficulties with recruitment for the failure to properly reopen this vital children’s ward, but this has been going on since July 2017.

"Instead of wasting valuable funds maintaining PFI projects for hospitals they can’t even use, NHS resources need to be put into staff.

"In the current climate, a five-year delay is ridiculous.”

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Dr Tracey Gillies, Medical Director at NHS Lothian said: "The safety of children has and always will be the overriding priority in any decision relating to the recommencement of 24/7 inpatient services in the Children's Ward at St John's.

"We have made encouraging progress in moving towards a safe and sustainable out-of-hours rota, but are continuing our enhanced efforts to recruit the required staff which will allow us to fully re-open 24/7.

"In the meantime parents should not do anything differently and if they need access to healthcare should still contact their GP, out of hours services via NHS24 or go straight to the Emergency Department, if required."

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health declined to comment.

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It was in 2016 that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reported that the suggested recruitment strategy would take three to five years to allow the reopening of the inpatient children’s ward.

“So it is totally wrong and misleading to suggest that it would be five years from 2019.

“Patient safety is always our main concern and, despite extensive recruitment efforts, the unanimous clinical view was that it was not possible to safely reinstate the full 24/7 service at St John’s in Livingston from October.

“The Health Secretary has been clear in committing to the full 24/7 reinstatement of the service as soon as it is safe to do so and has been assured that NHS Lothian will continue their recruitment efforts to make sure they can deliver on the commitments they have made to parents and children and the staff at St John’s.”