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NHS Highland in fresh Covid-19 coronavirus controversy

By Philip Murray

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Looking towards Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
Looking towards Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

SHOCKED politicians have demanded answers from NHS Highland after the organisation was implicated in a national scandal about treatment of the sick and elderly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An investigation by the Sunday Times’ award-winning Insight team claimed that a coronavirus triage tool, which sought to ‘ration’ intensive care treatment, was uploaded onto a system used by NHS Highland medics.

The paper’s expose claimed that several NHS boards “denied” intensive care treatment for some older Covid-19 patients during the height of the pandemic’s first wave – as health chiefs scrambled to prevent the virus from overwhelming hard-hit hospital facilities.

The so-called ‘triage tool’ was said to score patients on their suitability for intensive care, based on the likelihood that they would respond to treatment and the need to conserve stretched resources.

Those over 80 were reportedly recommended for exclusion due to their age, while some people in younger age groups could also find themselves missing out due to existing health conditions.

The tool, which was reportedly drawn up at the request of England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, was never official NHS policy in either England or Scotland.

But the Sunday Times said a number of health trusts in England used the tool anyway, and that the British Medical Association feared “large numbers” of patients “did not receive the care they needed”.

And it added that a similarly worded triage tool guide was temporarily uploaded onto NHS Highland’s internal intranet – a system used by its doctors.

The health board said the upload was an “error” and stressed that the tool had never been used in the Highlands.

But its presence on the system has horrified some Highland politicians, who have fears over any potential impact it could have had on doctors’ treatment decisions.

Rhoda Grant.
Rhoda Grant.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “The revelations are shocking. We know that the elderly suffered the most, especially in the early days of the pandemic, but the existence of a tick-list tool, which it is claimed could have prevented the elderly receiving intensive care treatment, is extremely concerning and inhumane.

“I will be asking NHS Highland and the Scottish Government if this triage tool was circulated and if it was ever used by clinicians. The public need to know what really went on behind the scenes.”

Inverness West ward councillor and former Inverness Provost Alex Graham has called for “clear assurances” from NHS Highland that no such treatment approach will be used without full public awareness and debate first.

The Lib-Dem member said: “I would want... NHS Highland to be absolutely clear about the status of this approach and be absolutely clear if it was applied and, if so, what was the justification?

“As a councillor that’s what I would be looking for – a clear assurance that it wasn’t used and that that approach would not be used without public discussion and knowledge.”

NHS Highland has moved to quell any concerns, stressing that the triage tool had been rejected by it, and that the presence of the document on its website was purely accidental – and “was never used to determine patient care”.

They said: “The Sunday Times article is referring to a document which was never ratified by NHS Highland and was never used to determine patient care.

“It was discussed by a clinical panel and rejected. Unfortunately, it was accidentally uploaded with a batch of other documents which had been discussed at the same time. This was an error and the document has subsequently been removed.

“It was never used or required for patient care in Highland.”

Edward Mountain.
Edward Mountain.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain, expressed disappointment at the gaffe.

He said: “I’m disappointed that NHS Highland published a document on their website which appears to be wrong and appears to place different values on the lives of people in the Highlands.

“I believe that every Highlander deserves the best possible treatment. When it comes to making decisions about triage, the decision should be left to the doctor based on their clinical judgement and based on the patient they are treating.”

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