Round-the-clock care in the ward at St John’s in Livingston was halted more than two years ago and health bosses have warned that staffing problems mean it could be 2024 before it is restored.
NHS Lothian has insisted that “enhanced efforts” are under way to fully re-open the ward which returned to four nights a week from Monday to Thursday in March. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information from NHS Lothian show that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health warned in August that fully reopening the ward could take three to five years to achieve.
Minutes from a meeting of NHS Lothian’s paediatric programme board, obtained by the Conservatives, revealed the hospital “is currently finding it challenging to open for four days” and “it would be unwise to extend this further at the moment”.
They further revealed that Martin Hill, the chairman of the paediatric programme board, said “it would appear to be ambitious to consider opening 24-7 for seven days at this stage”.
In October, Ms Freeman told MSPs she could not say when the ward would fully reopen – despite having previously pledged it would be providing 24/7 care for patients by last month.
The minutes also reveal that “the service is currently finding it challenging to open for four days and that, with patient safety being the prime consideration, it would be unwise to extend this further at the moment”.
It marks the latest hospital setback for Ms Freeman who has seen the Sick Children’s hospital at Edinburgh delayed and a series of infection scandals at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow.
NHS Lothian is currently dealing with delays to the opening of the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh
In Glasgow, wards at the Royal Hospital for Children – which is on the same campus as Queen Elizabeth University Hospital – had to be closed in September last year following concerns from Health Protection Scotland over incidents of water contamination.
Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs said: “The SNP is failing sick children and their families right across the country. It’s bad enough that the flagship paediatric hospital in Edinburgh has been delayed for almost a decade on its watch but now we learn there are major delays in West Lothian, too.
“For more than two years a key children’s unit – which has historically served young patients on a 24/7 basis – has been downgraded.
“Jeane Freeman promised this would be sorted by October, only to admit that wasn’t happening, and now we learn a full reopening could be five years away.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens said: “The state of children’s services at NHS Lothian is in meltdown.
“The board is paying for a hospital it cannot use, cannot staff a ward which has been closed for years, and our young people are being treated at a hospital services had already started to move out of.”
Labour’s Lothians MSP Neil Findlay said the St John’s saga has caused “years of stress” for sick children.
He said: “The terrible situation we have here is the direct result of SNP incompetence and arrogance.”
Dr Tracey Gillies, medical director at NHS Lothian, said: “The safety of children has and always will be the overriding priority in any decision relating to the recommencement of 24/7 inpatient services in the Children’s Ward at St John’s.
“We have made encouraging progress in moving towards a safe and sustainable out-of-hours rota, but are continuing efforts to recruit the required staff which will allow us to fully re-open 24/7. In the meantime [if] parents need access to healthcare, they should still contact their GP, out of hours services via NHS24 or go straight to the Emergency Department, if required.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It was in 2016 that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reported that the suggested recruitment strategy would take three to five years to allow the reopening of the inpatient children’s ward.
“So it is totally wrong and misleading to suggest that it would be five years from 2019.
“Patient safety is always our main concern and, despite extensive recruitment efforts, the unanimous clinical view was that it was not possible to safely reinstate the full 24/7 service at St John’s in Livingston from October.
“The Health Secretary has been clear in committing to the full 24/7 reinstatement of the service as soon as it is safe to do so and has been assured that NHS Lothian will continue their recruitment efforts to make sure they can deliver on the commitments they have made to parents and children and the staff at St John’s.”