NHS Scotland crisis: Halt to new building works a 'hammer blow' to rural communities

Plans to build much-needed rural health infrastructure in the Highlands, including a replacement hospital in Fort William, have been delayed for at least two years after the Scottish Government told health boards there is no money available

Rural areas are set to be punished by a widespread pause on NHS building plans, senior medics have warned, as the impact was described as a "hammer blow' for areas outside the Central Belt.

Plans to build a dozen new NHS hospitals, surgeries and treatment centres have been delayed for at least two years, after the Scottish Government told health boards there is no money available for the countless building projects that had been planned.

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This includes much-needed rural health infrastructure in the Highlands, including a replacement hospital in Fort William, upgrades to Caithness General Hospital, upgrades to the maternity unit at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, and relocating two GP practices to Cowal Community Hospital in Dunoon.

Fort William from the airFort William from the air
Fort William from the air

Scottish Conservative deputy health spokesperson Tess White said rural patients and communities were “once again being short-changed by this Central Belt obsessed SNP-Green Government”.

“It is a hammer blow for my constituents in Aberdeen that plans for a much-needed new treatment centre have now been delayed for two years, with other projects in NHS Grampian also being paused,” she said.

“The SNP have recklessly wasted record funding from the UK government and have mismanaged our NHS for 17 years and that impact is even greater in rural Scotland.

Neil Gray – the new SNP health secretary – must address this situation urgently and ensure that patients in rural Scotland have easy access to healthcare services. If he needs somewhere to start, he should embrace our plans to deliver a modern, efficient and local approach to our NHS.”

Scottish Labour Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said that “after years of centralisation and neglect”, rural communities in Scotland “already struggle to access vital healthcare”.

“These delays will be a hammer blow to rural Scotland, piling pressure on over-stretched services and putting patients at risk,” she said.

"The SNP must not make rural communities pay the price for its failure. The health secretary must set out how he will protect patients and services in the absence of these badly needed upgrades."

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Amongst the projects being delayed across Scotland is a network of ten treatment centres, which were expected to create at least 40,000 additional elective surgeries, diagnostic centres and other procedures a year by 2026.

Dr Iain Kennedy, chair of BMA Scotland, said the pressures faced by NHS Scotland were exacerbated in rural communities.

“The fact that NHS Scotland is struggling to finance both the day-to-day running of services and the upkeep of the physical estate where care is delivered is having a profound impact across Scotland,” he said.

“This is felt acutely in urban areas, but the remote nature of rural health care, often spread across multiple smaller centres, means that problems with buildings here are often exacerbated.

“Rural communities often feel isolated and sometimes at the bottom of the list for these kind of services, and while the capital pause will undoubtedly impact the whole of Scotland, people living in remote areas will feel it particularly keenly.

“That’s not least as GP premises are also, in many cases, in desperate need of improvement, to provide the kind of spaces that are crucial to delivering modern care, rather than the Victorian-era buildings that are currently often relied on, and are simply no longer fit for purpose – both in terms of disabled access and the required space for all members of the practice team.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the capital funding position was “extremely challenging”.

“The UK government did not inflation-proof its capital budget, which has resulted in nearly a 10 per cent real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s capital funding over the medium term between 2023/24 and 2027/28,” the spokesperson said.

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“Our emphasis for the immediate future will be on addressing backlog maintenance and essential equipment replacement.

“As a result of the cut in our capital budget, a revised infrastructure investment plan will be published in the spring and all due consideration will be given to what projects can be included within that revised plan.”

Dr JP Loughrey, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine’s vice-president for Scotland, said: “A long term lack of investment in the infrastructure needed to provide appropriate and sufficient care for patients across Scotland, reductions in overall acute bed capacity, and amalgamations of previous sites, means there is a widespread imbalance in demand and capacity, as outlined by the Audit Scotland report just published.

“The move to halt these developments is another blow to equity of care – and is a backward step. We should we investing in and developing our healthcare system, not sacrificing plans when finances are stretched. The NHS is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is a necessity and adequate investment is crucial.”



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