Kevan Christie: St John's pediatric closure smacks of negligence

The nightmare at St John's Hospital comes on the back of doctors accusing the Scottish Government of ignoring major staff shortages in the NHS, writes Kevan Christie.

St John's Hospital. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

NHS Lothian, already reeling from its highest ever level of vacancies for nurses and midwives, decided to temporarily close the paediatric ward from 7 July to inpatients because of a shortage of doctors required to keep it open round the clock. The ward will instead become an assessment unit during the day, 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 – a 46-or-so mile round trip with parking charges too, if you own a car at all.

The move marks the third time in six years that the health board presiding over this omnishambles has taken such a step.

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If it were the local hospital in downtown Aleppo or war-torn eastern Ukraine then you could understand and make allowances for a children’s ward closing due to a lack of doctors – but this is in Livingston, West Lothian.

Unsurprisingly, the decision has been condemned by campaigners and politicians whose fears about the threat to the long-term future of paediatric services at the hospital prompted a review last year, which said they should be retained.

A petition started by local Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who has campaigned vigorously on this issue, now has more than 6,000 signatures, amid a rising tide of anger.

Shutting once is careless, twice unacceptable but to allow the same thing to happen three times smacks of negligence. However, don’t hold your breath for anyone to be held to account let alone take full responsibility – that’s not how it works. The hospital was hit by similar shutdowns in 2012 and 2015 with – wait for it – a forced closure when a husband and wife team who were both doctors there went on holiday together.

NHS Lothian deputy chief executive Jim Crombie has defended the closure, saying the current staffing situation represented “a significant risk to the safe provision of services” – six new consultants have been appointed out of eight required.

The nightmare at St John’s comes on the back of doctors accusing the Scottish Government of ignoring a major risk to the health service by failing to deal with staff shortages in the NHS.

Dr Peter Bennie said yesterday that “the health service is never out of the political spotlight” and added that the NHS has been front and centre in two referendums, the Scottish election and two general elections. Yet, despite this situations like the one at St John’s are allowed to happen. There may be signs that the Scottish Government are ready to address the sttaffing crisis in the NHS with Indyref2 now appearing to be on the backburner.

Health Secretary Shona Robison has announced an estimated 2,600 extra nursing and midwifery training places will be created over the next four years as part of wide-ranging measures to support NHS Scotland’s workforce.

This, coupled with last week’s announcement of a new four-year medicine degree for graduates aimed at providing doctors in rural areas, is to be welcomed.

However, none of this provides any comfort to the people of West Lothian, who are rightly feeling that they are being treated like second-class citizens at the moment.