MINISTERS have been accused of putting the SNP's election hopes ahead of the NHS after it emerged that they were accused of lobbying health chiefs to delay a report that could signal the downgrade of a popular children's ward.
Bosses at Lothian health board privately complained of being "bumped" into agreeing a timeframe by Scottish Government health officials that would have seen an independent review into the troubled paediatric service at St John's Hospital in Livingston kept secret until after the poll on May 5.
It followed warnings that delays risked causing further problems for the service.
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Emails released under Freedom of Information (FoI) show that Health Secretary Shona Robison queried why the review was due to complete in early 2016.
Despite being told that delays would risk more staff quitting the service and cause anxiety to patients, officials pushed NHS Lothian to commit to an Easter completion date – a time that would have been shortly after a pre-election 'purdah' prevents bodies from making politically sensitive announcements.
A government spokesman said the timing of the review's publication was an NHS board matter and the emails had only been seeking clarification on the timing, adding that they did not represent an attempt to 'alter the timescale.'
In another incident uncovered by the FoI, Brian Houston, the NHS Lothian chair, declared his intention to ignore more than 400 emails expressing concern about the future of the children's ward. Mr Houston wrote to his chief executive: "I'm not bothered, and I don't think we should pay them any heed."
Neil Findlay, the Labour MSP who obtained the documents, said they contained "truly shocking revelations" and added that Ms Robison had "many questions to answer".
He accused Mr Houston of "arrogant contempt" towards patients
Ms Robison's querying of the early 2016 review date caused Jim Crombie, NHS Lothian's Chief Officer for Acute Hospital Services, to complain "we are being bumped into advising something formally" and state that the The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), which is carrying out the probe, should decide timings.
However, the health board later requested a delay in the review after it emerged that the RCPCH would not have a lay reviewer available to attend a planned visit in November.
The decision effectively ended any chance of the review being completed by March 23, when the pre-election rules come into force.
The documents also reveal that George Walker, an influential NHS Lothian board member, asked that the report was not released until after May 5 as he feared politicians may campaign against the RCPCH recommendation in the run-up to the vote meaning "movement back from such a position post election may be impossible".
Mr Walker saw his term as a non-executive board member extended by Ms Robison the following month.
A cross-party group of political activists last week joined forces to claim that West Lothian voters deserved to know plans for the children's ward, which has been under threat for years and serves the constituencies of SNP cabinet secretaries Fiona Hyslop and Angela Constance, before going to the polls.
Neil Findlay, the Labour MSP who obtained the emails, added: "Here we have NHS Lothian saying that any delay to this report could lead to staff leaving the ward because of uncertainty over its future, thus jeopardising the very existence of the service and we have the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government seeking to delay the report for party political gain. This is outrageous."
The Lothians MSP accused Mr Houston of displaying "arrogant contempt" towards patients.
The ward, which was temporarily downgraded last summer due to staffing concerns, is instead reliant on expensive locums and existing workers performing overtime at vastly increased pay.
Mr Davidson, in an email to NHS chief executive Paul Gray last July, said paying triple time to staff the ward was "not value for public money" especially in light of the small number of patients that used the ward. Mr Gray responded by saying Ms Robison expected the downgrade to be temporary and added "we need to look for compromises"
Jim Crombie, Chief Operating Office, NHS Lothian, said: “The timeline for the review has been based on the availability of the experienced and expert team from the Royal College of Paediatrics.
"The Royal College indicated that their full review team would not be able to attend in November and December. In particular, their lay member, who provides the public engagement perspective, was unavailable.
"NHS Lothian has been clear of the importance of ensuring that the review considers parent, public and stakeholder views, alongside the service and staffing issues and it would have been inappropriate for the Royal College to visit without this key member of their team. As a result revised dates for a visit in January were agreed.”
Asked why NHS Lothian did not pay heed to the emails, Mr Crombie said this was because during an online public consultation exercise, a 'significant'
number of the same email were received. He added: "We noted the numbers received however the content of each email was exactly the same and these points had been previously noted."
Mr Crombie said the chief executive was kept updated on plans for re-opening of the ward in August 2015. However, he added the team had "concerns about the sustainability" given several issues that existed.
“While we wanted to provide reassurance that the inpatient service would fully resume, we also needed to be clear that it remained fragile and that a comprehensive review of acute paediatric services across Lothian would explore options to ensure the safest possible service and secure long term stability," he added.
A government spokesman said: "These emails are from officials seeking clarification on the reasons for the timing, in order to brief ministers and enable the Scottish Government to respond to questions. It is entirely normal for government officials to correspond with boards in this way.
"At no point in these emails is there any attempt from the Scottish Government to alter the timescale of the report. To claim otherwise is simply wrong."