FURIOUS campaigners fear for the future of the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital, Livingston, after a fresh staffing crisis has forced it to close to inpatients for the third time in six years.
The paediatric ward will instead become an assessment unit during the day from Friday, July 7, with children being seen in the hospital’s emergency department at nights and weekends. Children who need to be admitted will be transferred to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.
NHS Lothian said it had taken the “difficult and deeply frustrating decision” to ensure patient safety as it struggles to recruit enough doctors.
But council leaders have branded the situation “unacceptable” and urged the Scottish Government to take urgent action.
The hospital was hit by similar summer shutdowns in 2012 and 2015, with widespread dismay greeting yesterday’s news.
The Evening News understands the staffing crisis has been so bad in previous years that it has even been forced to close when a husband and wife, who are both doctors there, went on holiday together.
Ellen Glass of campaign group Action To Save St John’s Hospital said; “It’s an absolute disgrace that this could happen in this day and age. How are parents going to get over to Sick Children in Edinburgh? Who’s going to look after children left at home while they’re there?”
NHS Lothian’s chief officer of acute services, Jacquie Campbell, said the issue had been caused by being unable to “reliably secure the levels of staffing required overnight and at weekends to guarantee a safe service”.
“If we don’t make changes now to the operating hours of the children’s ward, we run the risk of having to make an unplanned closure at a few hours’ notice, which would lead to the sudden diversion of patients,” she said.
“This reduction in opening hours is the safest option for the children of West Lothian.
“We are committed to reinstating the full service as soon as possible after the summer and will be working with the Chief Medical Officer, Scottish Government and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to review the steps we have taken and to identify what else can be done to guarantee safe, sustainable staffing for this service.”
Last year a study by the RCPCH recommended that the ward be retained after previous temporary closures for the same reason. About 1,000 children are admitted to the hospital for treatment each year, with two overnight resident doctors and an on-call consultant needed to provide a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service.
Opposition parties said local residents would be “furious” at the latest closure.
The Conservatives’ Miles Briggs blamed the move on the “failure” of the SNP government to deliver a national plan for the NHS.
“It will be greeted with dismay and disappointment by parents and local people across the area,” he said.
Lothians Labour MSP Neil Findlay added: “Nicola Sturgeon promised to support the retention of these services. She has clearly broken that promise.
“It is simply not good enough – the SNP government and NHS have once again failed to deliver on their promises. Scottish Labour will fight this closure.”
And Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: “While I appreciate patient safety comes first, I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make the reopening of this important unit a priority, and I will work with her and colleagues of all parties to achieve this.”
Health Secretary Shona Robison said she had written to the health board “to emphasise the importance I attach to early reinstatement of this vital service”.
She said: “NHS Lothian has taken a number of steps to improve recruitment in this area, in line with the Royal College of Paediatricians recommendations, including seeking to recruit eight extra consultants covering shifts directly and the use of locums.
“I understand that this temporary measure is being taken in the best interest of children and their families.
“I have written to the board today to emphasise the importance I attach to early reinstatement of this vital service .
“NHS Lothian has assured me they will engage again with the Royal College of Paediatricians to identify solutions for sustainable services for patients.
“The board has confirmed they will reinstate a full service as soon as possible after the summer.
“The Chief Medical Officer and the Scottish Government’s Director of Performance will keep progress under review over the coming weeks.
“We are continuing to work with NHS Lothian to ensure the services on offer at the St John’s in-patient paediatric ward remains safe and sustainable in the long-term.”