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WATCH: Sending pregnant women to Aberdeen or Perth would be 'totally unacceptable'

By Alan Hendry

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A local healthcare campaigner has warned it would be "totally unacceptable" for Caithness mums-to-be to be sent to Aberdeen or Perth to give birth.

Ron Gunn, chairman of Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT), spoke out after a Highlands and Islands MSP claimed that maternity provision in the Highlands is "verging on a crisis".

A £9 million plan to increase capacity at the Raigmore Hospital maternity unit in Inverness is among the projects affected by the Scottish Government's pause on funding for healthcare construction projects.

Conservative MSP Edward Mountain questioned Scotland's recently appointed health secretary Neil Gray in Holyrood.

Mr Mountain said: “Without proper investment in Raigmore, and in the absence of any kind of robust maternity services in smaller local hospitals, families are in an impossible position.

“Women in labour could very easily face journeys of up to four hours to Aberdeen or even Perth if the situation at Raigmore isn’t sorted out."

The health secretary said he would work with Mr Mountain to try and “ameliorate” some of the difficulties for pregnant women in the Highlands after acknowledging the “incredibly challenging” situation.

Mr Gunn said: "I am delighted that Edward Mountain has raised the maternity problems with the new health secretary and that he has agreed to work with Edward to improve the situation.

"We all know that over 90 per cent of Caithness mums now give birth in Inverness and, following the news that planned expansion to the maternity unit in Raigmore has been halted, I agree with Edward that there is a very high probability that Caithness mums could well have to travel to Aberdeen or further to give birth.

"This is totally unacceptable, and if Neil Gray is looking to 'ameliorate' the 'incredibly challenging' situation I urge him to come to Caithness and meet with CHAT to discuss our maternity position and see what can be done to allow more of our mums to give birth in Caithness, which will also take the pressure off Raigmore."

Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain outside Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. Picture: James Mackenzie
Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain outside Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. Picture: James Mackenzie

In parliament, Mr Gray said: “I appreciate the question from Edward Mountain and I well appreciate the situation he has described is incredibly challenging.

"I can’t give a direct commitment in terms of the investment of Raigmore, but what I can commit to is his suggestion of working with him to see if there’s any more that can be done to ameliorate some of the difficulties that women in his region are facing.”

Mr Mountain said: “I’m glad Neil Gray has acknowledged this issue and has pledged to work with me to solve it.

“We desperately need to find a solution for the sake of pregnant women and their families right across the region.”

The consultant-led maternity unit at Caithness General Hospital was downgraded in 2016 to a midwife-led facility and the vast majority of local women now give birth at Raigmore.

Only eight mothers gave birth in the community midwifery unit at Wick during 2022, the last year for which figures are available, about four per cent of the total for Caithness mums. The number of Caithness women giving birth at Raigmore was 202.

CHAT wants the so-called Orkney model – a midwife-led unit backed up by consultants – to be introduced locally.

NHS Highland has emphasised that work will continue on planning and implementing the £80 million Caithness health redesign even though funding for such projects has been put on hold for at least two years.

The Scottish Government has described its capital funding position as "extremely challenging" and blamed the UK government.

Earlier this month, Mr Mountain warned that the number of Highland women having caesarean births has rocketed in the past five years as maternity services have been cut.

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