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Call to bring back vaccines to Highland GP practices as SNP leaders quizzed over new scheme

By Federica Stefani

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Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: Callum Mackay..

SNP leadership hopefuls were questioned over a new vaccination policy amid concerns it will adversely impact rural communities.

Former Nairn GP, Dr Alastair Noble questioned Ash Regan, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf about the policy at the Inverness Courier Leadership Debate last week.

And he said while he was reassured by responses from the former two he was worried that current Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care Mr Yousaf focused only on Covid vaccinations.

Dr Noble said: “It is quite honestly frightening that he was unable to address my question. He spoke about the success of the Covid vaccination programme but the real issue now is about routine immunisation, especially for children.

“People in the Highlands are already seeing appointments cancelled and they need to travel far to get their children vaccinated. This will be a difficult time for parents with young children.

“This is about the quality of care, especially for vulnerable people.”

The audience asking questions. Picture: James Mackenzie.
The audience asking questions. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Mr Noble had asked the candidates: “Are you ready to be the leader that oversees the reintroduction of infectious diseases like Polio and Meningitis to infants in the Highlands?”

As reported earlier this month in thee Courier, Dr Noble is worried about the impact of a policy that has seen the centralisation of immunisation programmes, taking responsibility away from GP practices and placing it in the hands of NHS Highland.

He has said this could mean people facing much longer journeys for jabs and having to fit themselves around a centralised booking system rather than benefitting from a more responsive local service.

Ultimately he fears people may miss out on vital immunisations.

The audience. Picture: James Mackenzie.
The audience. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Humza Yousaf said there needs to be continued review of the system, but defended the current rollout of the Covid immunisation programme across Scotland, saying it has been “a great success”.

He said: “We’ve got a good model that has worked and we see the majority of the population vaccinated and by WHO’s (the World Health Organisation) own study has saved over 22,000 lives here in Scotland.

He added: “The model can always be tweaked and should always be looked at to see where we can improve it.

Kate Forbes said the issue was created by an approach of “one model fitting all”.

She said: “The model that works for GP practices Glasgow just does not work for rural places in the Highlands and places like Nairn.

“It isn’t working in terms of one size fits all. It needs a fundamental review for how to ensure that GPs are able to deliver the services that they have been delivering for many, many years successfully, with the trust of patients, in a way that actually works.

“Again, it comes to the approach of being decentralised because you can’t expect people to travel long distances to be able to access vaccinations – they might just not go.”

Ash Regan replied that she would not be ready to be the First Minister in circumstances under which the diseases mentioned return.

Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing said central belt solutions are “not appropriate” for the Highlands where travelling distances can be a barrier for families and elderly people attending appointments.

Fergus Ewing said Highland GPs should be given the option to opt out of the new scheme.
Fergus Ewing said Highland GPs should be given the option to opt out of the new scheme.

He said: “Under the health board system there is serious risks that children are exposed to catching serious diseases because the NHS Highland system does not appear to be working at all – only at the beginning of March several clinics were cancelled.

“I advocated over the last year that the GPs in the Highlands who wish to provide vaccination and other services should be allowed to do so. There is a procedure where they can be authorised to do so as an exception from the GP contract, and that should be invoked.

“My call is to the incoming health secretary, whoever that may be, to intervene and to instruct the health boards to enable Highland GPs to provide the service.”

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