AN emergency unit at a Scottish hospital was forced to close for the weekend in the latest symptom of nationwide staff shortages.
NHS Highland closed its minor injury unit and primary care emergency unit in Thurso in Caithness for 48 hours “due to extreme staffing concerns”.
Local officials have struggled to hire qualified staff for the town’s Dunbar Hospital with several nursing vacancies currently unfilled.
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In a statement, the board suggested it could not run the unit safely over the weekend.
Patients, it said, were redirected to Caithness General Hospital more than half an hour away in Wick, which has also had problems recruiting staff.
Health campaigners in the country have warned that problems getting staff were threatening the viability of all NHS services.
There have also been several high-profile cases of problems with ambulances in the far north.
The John O’Groat Journal last month revealed 429 people were taken by ambulance to Inverness – two hours away in 2016.
One-third of them were emergencies.
Asked about the temporary closure of Dunbar’s emergency unit, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “Given the issues we’ve had with ambulance cover in Caithness, this is going to add more pressure.”
The NHS said dedicated staff had kept the Dunbar’s unit open by working extra shifts.
But it added: “However, extra staffing issues have emerged recently which have made this stop-gap solution untenable.
“Because of safety concerns, the hospital management has taken the decision to close the unit temporarily until such time that it can be safely fully staffed again.”
The board apologise “for any inconvenience caused” and pledged to re-advertise vacancies.
Hospitals in more remote areas have struggled to fill posts over recent years and there is nothing new about the Caithness staffing problems.
However, there have been several reports of recruitment problems across Scotland. A quarter of GP practices have said they find it hard to find doctors, The Herald revealed earlier this month and experts warn Brexit could make the situation even worse.
The British Medical Association last month said more than two out of five European medics were thinking of leaving the UK. Health Secretary Shona Robison said the findings are “deeply concerning”.
The Dunbar closure comes after what local campaigners in Caithness regard as the downgrading of maternity services. Many pregnant mothers now have to be taken to Inverness by ambulance. One woman gave birth in transit last year.
Nicola Sinclair, secretary of the pressure group the Caithness Health Action Team, fears NHS Highland could close the Thurso hospital amid concerns over high building maintenance costs.
She said: “I’m worried about the timing of this announcement. It’s probably building up to a bigger plan to close the Dunbar altogether which, obviously, we’d be really opposed to.”