CARDIAC patients in the north-east of Scotland face travelling 250 miles to Newcastle for their operations due to an ongoing shortage of theatre staff.

The move by NHS Grampian to offer patients the opportunity to undergo surgery in at the Freeman Hospital comes as it battles to clear a backlog of planned heart procedures. The delays to operations in the region has been blamed on "staffing difficulties", as well as increased demand for theatre capacity and critical care beds from emergency admissions.

The health board said it had struck an agreement with Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust to take on Grampian patients, but stressed that this was "a backup option" and to date no patients have used it.

Under the Scottish Government's treatment time guarantee, patients should wait no longer than 12 weeks for elective heart surgery.

However, the health board has been struggling in particular to recruit enough theatre nurses. Between November 2016 and the middle of January this year, the problem was blamed for more than 100 planned operations being cancelled.

Since the middle of July this year, a heart surgeon based in Grampian has also been travelling to the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Clydebank, where theatre space is available. A number of Grampian heart patients have been treated there as a result.

The latest arrangement with Newcastle emerged after a constituent of Scottish Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston waited more than three months for a heart operation.

In a letter to Mr Halcro Johnston, Health Secretary Shona Robison said the man's care had "fallen well below the level I would normally expect". She said that NHS Grampian had "a backlog of cardiac patients due to staffing difficulties within their cardiac theatres as well as challenges around critical care capacity and also around some emergency admissions requiring urgent surgery."

She added that the health board has "secured a Service Level Agreement with Newcastle and this option has been offered to patients".

Mr Halcro Johnston said: “The fact a health board in the north of Scotland is now depending on hospitals in England to treat heart patients shows the depth of the staffing crisis in Scotland’s NHS.

“It’s time for the SNP to admit it’s made a mess of workforce planning and apologise to the thousands of patients who’re paying the price for these failings. Travelling to Newcastle for any patient in the Grampian area isn’t convenient, but even less so for those with heart problems."

A spokesman for NHS Grampian said: "We are committed to ensuring patients are seen as quickly as possible which means, occasionally, people are offered the opportunity of surgery elsewhere during peaks in demand. We have well established links with Lothian and Glasgow and our agreement with Newcastle is a backup option which has not been utilised so far.

"People should be assured that our priority will always be to see patients in Grampian. There are also a range of factors which can result in capacity issues and not only down to staffing difficulties. As a result, we are working with our cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and other key clinicians on a comprehensive redesign of the service that will deliver change and build future capacity in Aberdeen."

Ms Robison said the Scottish Government were delivering record health spending despite Westminster cuts. She said: “Long waits are unacceptable which is why we have provided an additional £50 million to the NHS budget to improve waiting times at all stages of a patient’s journey through the health service – almost £5 million has been provided to NHS Grampian."