Children’s wards will be forced to close, warns official report

THE future of some of Scotland’s centres for paediatric services are at risk with staff shortages and a lack of cash likely to lead to closures this year.

THE future of some of Scotland’s centres for paediatric services are at risk with staff shortages and a lack of cash likely to lead to closures this year.

A closure of the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston is “highly likely” this summer, a year after the service was controversially shut for three weeks due to a short-term staffing crisis, a new report from health executives has warned.

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Staffing on children’s wards throughout Scotland is at “unsustainable” levels, with other paediatric units at risk of closure including that at Borders General Hospital, said the report.

The warning comes as Alex Salmond has pledged a rescue package for the children’s ward at St John’s, with a promised lifeline of more than £500,000. SNP ministers have promised a recruitment drive for permanent paediatric staff to cope with under-pressure services at sites such as St John’s. However, fully occupied children’s wards are likely to face “further gaps” in staffing this year, the report from the NHS regional planning group for South East Scotland and Tayside warned.

The future numbers of paediatric medical trainees at hospitals across Scotland “remains unclear”, with the shortage meaning health chiefs would be unable to meet “minimum safe staffing levels from February” the report claimed.

It went on to warn that paediatric services at St John’s and Borders General were particularly at risk of closure due to the staffing and funding pressures, with some of the cuts coming into force this year.

The report said: “The ongoing difficulties with the level of gaps in the middle-grade paediatric medical trainee workforce will continue and there is a high risk that the circumstances that led to the temporary closure of the inpatient paediatric services at St John’s will recur unless rota gaps left by the withdrawal of trainee cover out of hours can be filled with alternative arrangements.

“Should the level of gaps worsen then services at Borders General would also be at risk. The current workforce model is therefore unsustainable.”

The news comes despite a pledge by Mr Salmond at the 2011 Holyrood elections to “protect the health service for the duration of the next parliament”.

Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “It is clear that the pressures which forced the closure of St John’s over the summer have not been fixed and could now also impact services at Borders Hospital.

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“Both Alex Neil and Alex Salmond have said that everything will be fine. These papers are clear that the opposite is the case and the crisis is growing.”

The NHS report highlighted the risk of another closure at St John’s, which was last year forced to send 35 children to the Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh during its three-week shutdown.

The report said: “It is therefore important to recognise that should the paediatric workforce situation deteriorate as happened during the summer of 2012, then it is highly likely that further planned service changes, such as the three-week closure of inpatient ward in St John’s, will be required in order to maintain patient safety until staffing levels can be restored.”

NHS Lothian medical director Dr David Farquharson defended the health board’s record.

He said: “I would again reaffirm NHS Lothian’s absolute commitment to working to ensure the sustainable delivery of 24/7 paediatric and neonatal services at St John’s Hospital.

“We have invested significantly in recruitment, creating new consultant posts at the hospital to ensure a paediatric and neonatal service delivered by trained staff can be maintained.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are aware of the situation in the South East of Scotland and have made clear to the three NHS boards involved that we will support every effort to ensure that the best quality paediatric services are maintained.”

Dr Jean Turner, executive director of the Scotland Patients Association, said the strain on paediatric services may spread. “That’s always a worry if management doesn’t have its finger on the pulse over staffing.”