CONTRACTS that prevent all hospital patients in Scotland benefiting from free parking would cost "tens of millions" to terminate early, the health secretary said yesterday.
Parking charges remain at three hospitals – Edinburgh and Glasgow royal infirmaries and Ninewells in Dundee – where car parks are run under private finance initiative (PFI) arrangements.
Nicola Sturgeon said she would like health boards to negotiate with the private firms involved to end charging or bring the costs down.
But Vinci Park, the company that runs parking at Ninewells, has already ruled out any renegotiation of its contract with NHS Tayside.
Ms Sturgeon said it was not possible to put a figure on how much it would cost to terminate the three PFI contracts.
"At the best estimate, we are talking about tens of millions of pounds," she said. "You have to make judgments about whether that is the best use of NHS resources, but we will continue to see what will be done."
Last week, parking charges were dropped at 14 hospitals, following a pledge by the SNP. Yesterday, the minister visited one of those hospitals – St John's in Livingston – to hear from staff and visitors about the impact of the change.
But she expressed regret that a postcode lottery remained, which meant that not everyone across Scotland could benefit.
At Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, for example, charges are capped at 7 for the day – compared with 5.80 for 12 hours' parking at one of the NCP sites at Edinburgh Airport.
Ms Sturgeon said: "I have always been very honest about the situation at the PFI car parks. I have never tried to kid anybody on. We didn't sign the contracts.
"We have always been opposed to PFI, but we are stuck with those contracts.
"I said to the health boards with PFI contracts that they should have talks with the companies to try to either find a way out of the car parking charges or bring them down."
She went on: "In Tayside, the company that runs the car park at Ninewells has said it is not interested in negotiating an end to the contract. In other health boards, negotiations are ongoing.
"So I am optimistic that we can start to see a downward trend in these charges, but I'll never be anything other than brutally honest that it does make it very difficult to achieve the same objectives as we are achieving in other car parks."
The failure to remove charges at all sites has angered the leaders of unions representing hospital staff, many of whom have to pay for parking unless they have a permit.
Tom Waterson, the chairman of the health service group at Unison Scotland, said: "There are no reasons why PFI hospitals should be exempt from government instructions.
"Private companies should not be profiteering from staff going to work and relatives visiting patients. We urge the government to make PFI car parks free as soon as possible."
Macmillan Cancer Support also called for an end to charges at PFI hospitals. "Hospital parking charges are a tax on illness," the charity said.
Glasgow Royal Infirmary
• The car park is owned by Impregilo Car Parking and managed by Apcoa.
• It costs 1.10 an hour to park at the hospital between 8am and 6pm, and 2 to between 6pm and 8am.
• Impregilo declined to comment on parking.
• NHS Greater Glasgow said: "We are considering, in conjunction with the Central Legal Office, how we can best approach this issue and include wider issues than limiting increases in charges. These complex contract terms will be dealt with through negotiation processes."
Ninewells Hospital, Dundee
• Parking run by Vinci Park Ltd under a PFI contract with 20 years left to run.
• Car parking charges at Ninewells are capped to 1.70 a day.
• A spokeswoman for Vinci Park said: "Vinci Park's position in relation to the ongoing debate over hospital car parking charges in Scotland is not to comment."
• NHS Tayside said it had had formal discussions with Vinci Park over terminating the contract early, but the company said they had "no interest in negotiating a contract buy out".
• Car park run by Consort under a PFI contract which runs until 2028.
• Costs 1.20 an hour to park at the hospital, with a 7 daily cap for those staying over six hours.
• A spokeswoman for Consort said: "The car parking charges are part of our 25-year contract which was agreed with the health board."
• NHS Lothian says it is in discussions over parking. John Jack, the director of facilities, said: "There is a contract and negotiations are ongoing."