The paediatric ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian, has been closed to out of hours inpatients since July 2017 due to staff shortages.
In a parliamentary statement last week, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said reopening the ward was the “highest level of priority” but refused to give a target date.
Now, NHS Lothian board papers reveal in August officials believed putting the agreed safe staffing model in place to enable the ward to return to a round the clock service could take up to three years.
The health board said since the meeting their timelines have become “more optimistic” but could not put a figure to them.
Minutes from the Acute Hospitals Committee meeting on August 21, due to be agreed at the board meeting on Wednesday, state: “The new model at St John’s would be a mix of doctors and advanced nurse practitioners with a shift of the focus to nurses.
“It was expected to take two to three years to reach the proposed position. There was currently one advanced nurse practitioner employed at this level, two would have completed training in one year and there were another two new applicants.”
In the meantime, transfers from the hospital to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh will continue.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs claimed the ward had been “downgraded”.
He added: “The people who know best are telling us it could be three years before this vital service fully reopens.
“That jars with the gloss the SNP put on it last week by suggesting progress could be quicker.
“The ongoing shambles at St John’s is a direct consequence of the SNP’s disgraceful approach to workforce planning.”
Labour MSP Neil Findlay added: “Forcing families to endure travelling and delays to Edinburgh for up to a further three years is simply not acceptable.
“The health secretary said last week that re-opening the ward would be of ‘the highest level of priority’, that cannot be true if it will take another 36 months.”
In a statement last week, NHS Lothian deputy chief executive Jim Crombie said the board is committed to fully re-opening the ward as soon as possible.
He said he expects the three advanced nurse practitioner trainees appointed in August to be able to “participate in the out of hours rota in late 2019 to early 2020, depending on progression through their training”.
The health board’s chief officer of acute services, Jacquie Campbell, said: “The meeting paper referred to was written before we held the interviews for the trainee advanced nurse practitioners posts.
“Now that we have met, assessed and employed our new recruits, our timelines are more optimistic.”
She added: “We have communicated with our staff and patients throughout the course of the last year and reassured them that we will not reinstate inpatient paediatric services at St John’s Hospital until it is safe and sustainable to do so.”