FAMILIES face a wait of up to three years for a children’s unit at St John's Hospital in Livingston to fully reopen, it has emerged.

The paediatric ward has been closed to out-of-hours inpatients since July last year due to staff shortages.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman previously said reopening the ward was the "highest level of priority" but refused to give a target date.

Now NHS Lothian board papers suggest restoring the 24/7 operation will take two to three years.

Minutes from the Acute Hospitals Committee meeting on August 21, due to be agreed at a board meeting on Wednesday, state: "The new model at St John's would be a mix of doctors and advanced nurse practitioners with a shift of the focus to nurses.

"It was expected to take two to three years to reach the proposed position. There was currently one advanced nurse practitioner employed at this level, two would have completed training in one year and there were another two new applicants."

Children from West Lothian who need to stay in hospital overnight are currently being sent to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.

The measure was originally intended to be temporarily, but an ongoing shortage of consultants means the ward has remained closed to inpatients.

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs claimed it had been "downgraded".

He added: "The people who know best are telling us it could be three years before this vital service fully reopens.

"That jars with the gloss the SNP put on it last week by suggesting progress could be quicker.

"The ongoing shambles at St John's is a direct consequence of the SNP's disgraceful approach to workforce planning."

Labour MSP Neil Findlay added: "Forcing families to endure travelling and delays to Edinburgh for up to a further three years is simply not acceptable.

"The health secretary said last week that re-opening the ward would be of 'the highest level of priority', that cannot be true if it will take another 36 months."

In a statement last week, NHS Lothian deputy chief executive Jim Crombie said the board is committed to fully re-opening the ward as soon as possible.