CONCERNS have been raised for the future of St John’s Hospital as campaigners vowed to fight plans to temporarily shut down its children’s ward.
In a highly charged meeting of NHS Lothian’s board, medical director Dr David Farquharson revealed that pressure on staffing next month could put patient safety at risk, prompting the three-week closure.
Dr Farquharson said shutting the ward was a short-term measure, but stopped short of guaranteeing the long-term future of the children’s inpatient service at St John’s, which has been stretched to breaking point by a nationwide shortage of paediatricians.
The move, which will see sick children from West Lothian transferred to Edinburgh’s Sick Kids’ Hospital, was condemned by West Lothian Council and the Save St John’s Hospital campaign group.
West Lothian Council called on Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon to intervene, with council leader John McGinty branding the proposals “completely unacceptable”.
At the board meeting yesterday, the local authority’s representative, Councillor Frank Toner, said he feared the measure would be the beginning of a raft of service cuts at the Livingston hospital.
He said: “I am concerned that this may be the first step in a long line of degrading services at St John’s. We have concerns in the immediate term and the long term. This is a very important issue to the people of West Lothian.”
The children’s ward will be shut from July 9 for three weeks. During this period it will operate as an assessment and programmed investigation unit on weekdays between 8am and 8pm.
If admission figures in previous years are repeated, between 60 and 81 children who would normally be treated at St John’s will have to be transferred.
There will be no change to maternity and neonatal services.
The hospital was put under increased pressure when the dean of postgraduate medicine at NHS Education for Scotland took the decision to remove trainee paediatric doctors in April.
Dr Farquharson said that while there were enough staff members in place to cover shifts next month, unexpected absences could leave the hospital exposed. He added that he had made the recommendation to close the ward with a “heavy heart”.
NHS Lothian has previously advertised paediatrician jobs in Europe, New Zealand and Singapore in a bid to fill roles.
Trainees are to return in August, while interviews to recruit neonatologists and paediatricians are set to be conducted tomorrow and in mid-July.
Speaking in advance of the board meeting, Dr Farquharson said: “I can’t conjure up paediatricians. There is a national shortage – they can pick and choose their jobs. This will be a one-off if all of the candidates appear on the day and are fit for purpose.”
Ellen Glass, spokeswoman for the Action the Save St John’s Hospital group, said she would fight to prevent the closure.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re being told about this as £20 million is used for waiting lists. It’s an extra kick in the teeth.”