Health secretary under fire for failure to fully re-open children's ward

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman came under pressure over further delays to the re-opening of the children's ward at St John's hospital.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman came under pressure over further delays to the re-opening of the children's ward at St John's hospital.
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Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman came under fire today over the decision not to fully re-open the children's ward at St John's hospital in Livingston this month, due to a lack of staff.

SNP, Labour, Green and Conservative politicians lined up to demand answers from Ms Freeman, after she was forced to admit a previous commitment to have the paediatric ward open 24 hours, seven days a week, by the end of October, would not be met.

NHS Lothian closed the hospital's children's ward for 18 months due to staff pressures, with it re-opening for four nights a week in March. Earlier this year Ms Freeman said it would be open fully again this month, however hospital bosses have revealed they have not yet been able to recruit enough staff and no new date has been given for when it might now happen.

According to the health minister NHS Lothian had recruited an additional 16 staff, but three staff had left to take other posts, and a further three were on reduced hours, leaving just 32 hours out of 40 of the out-of-hours service covered by staff.

READ MORE: 24/7 re-opening of children's ward at St John's Hospital Livingston called off
Today in Holyrood SNP MSP Angela Constance said parents were "deeply disappointed" facing yet another winter travelling to Edinburgh's Sick Kids' hospital "when they could and should be cared for locally", asked that Ms Freeman meet affected families and demanded that more paediatric services should be offered at St John's to "anchor a 24/7 service" and benefit the region as a whole.

Ms Freeman said: "I absolutely understand the disappointment faced by parents in West Lothian, these are families with a sick child and this is an additional worry and an additional burden for them when they had hoped this would be the winter when they did not have to undertake that additional journey. I would be happy to meet the families concerned."

She added: "The key factor in the full reinstatement of this service is patient safety. More recruitment is needed, and I remain committed to a full 24/7 service and continue to actively support the board's efforts to achieve that.

"We have in St John's a first class and undoubtedly much loved children's ward. I am well aware of the growth in the area, and the nature of that population growth - many families with young children. I fully expect NHS Lothian to consider the Lothian-wide delivery of paediatric services, both in hospital and community, and that means giving active consideration to the design and delivery of services.

"I have asked the Chief Medical Officer to engage directly with NHS Lothian on this looking across the entire estate at how we can, for this winter and in the longer term, make sure both areas of the estate are actively and properly resourced and used to meet the demands of the population they serve."

While Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon asked for a guarantee that the service will be fully reinstated by end of 2019, Ms Freeman said she was unable to give it as she was "not personally in charge of recruitment".

She said she had asked NHS Lothian to "over-recruit" to ensure it could take account of long term sickness and other absences which impact on the staff rota. "They have recruited consultant posts which are hybrid, working across Edinburgh and St John's so there may be more to do there," she said. "And there may be more to do with current staff who are prepared to take on additional hours in a sustainable way."

As tempers rose, Neil Findlay MSP demanded to know why "this shambles was still not resolved" after seven years, and if it had taken a letter from him to NHS Lothian for the news of the latest delay to be made public.

READ MORE: Scotland’s NHS ‘recruitment crisis’ may put children’s health at risk
But Ms Freeman said while she understood his anger, there was "no conspiracy" around the timing of the delay announcement. She said: "It's not the case that there was suddenly a flurry of government activity because he'd written a letter. The decision was made at the end of August but we questioned that decision and looked further at it."

Rebuking Mr Findlay for shouting at her in the chamber, she added: "You may be cynical and sceptical about that, but that doesn't alter the facts of the matter. You would expect me to query what a board is telling me they can't do when what they can't do is what I've made a commitment that I need them to do. Of course I would go back and query that otherwise I would be failing in my role as Cabinet Secretary.

"I don't think it's overly helpful for me to be clear if a member insists on continuing to shout at me. There is no conspiracy or attempt to keep matters from this chamber, or more importantly, to keep information from families who this directly affects."

Scottish Tory MSP Jeremy Balfour asked for when another update would be given, and if parents could get more help with transport issues back to West Lothian from Edinburgh at weekends, and Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone asked what support was being given to staff under pressure.

Ms Freeman said she would update MSPs in a month, and would raise the transport issue with NHS Lothian and added: "A number of steps are being taken in terms of the existing Sick Kids' hospital at Sciennes, with staff and services continuing there while we make sure the new site is safe, and that includes additional support to staff. That's in addition to looking at a Lothian-wide paediatric service which maximises the resources at the boards disposal.

"In terms of staff mental health and wellbeing, that is what I expect NHS Lothian to be doing, but I will ask them if they are taking additional steps."