WHISTLEBLOWERS who helped expose a bullying scandal at NHS Highland say they have been "palmed off" by the Health Secretary despite repeated requests for a meeting.

The three former non-executive directors who spoke out about the culture at the health board said they want a face-to-face meeting with Jeane Freeman amid fears that lessons are not being learned.

Myra Duncan, Mike Evans and Sarah Wedgwood were due to meet with Ms Freeman on September 10. However, the meeting was cancelled by her officials on September 6 blaming "parliamentary business", and has not been rescheduled.

Ms Duncan, who served on the board of NHS Highland for five years until her resignation in May 2017, said: "We went back three times and said 'can we have a reschedule?'. We got a letter in response from her private secretary saying 'the Cabinet Secretary suggests that you meet with the chair of the board at NHS Highland'.

"But for us as non-executives, that office of Cabinet Secretary was our line manager. That was who appointed us. We would expect to be able to have a conversation with her, but we've been palmed off."

It comes amid a row over compensation for victims of bullying after NHS Highland said it would be up to individuals to seek damages through an employment tribunal.

The Sturrock Report into bullying at NHS Highland, published in May, found that hundreds of staff had experienced "inappropriate behaviour", with many suffering "serious harm and trauma" that led them to quit their jobs or retire early.

The investigation was triggered after clinicians wrote to the Herald in September 2018 describing "a culture of fear and intimidation" at the organisation which they said was silencing criticism and concerns over patient care.

The leadership has since been overhauled with the departures of chief executive Elaine Meade, who retired in December 2018, and chairman David Alston.

Ms Duncan said she wrote to then-Health Secretary Shona Robison at the time of her resignation in 2017 to raise concerns about how the organisation was being run, but "no one came back to me".

She said it is a source of distress to victims that "nobody has been held to account".

Ms Duncan said: "The current board has members who were members during the time of the bullying, during the time when whistleblowers spoke out, who issued a statement of denial.

"And now they are sitting there telling people to prove that they were bullied at tribunals. Even people who were appointed in the past year have signed up to a process that is basically adversarial and shows absolutely no understanding of the risk there is to re-traumatise the victims.

"And for us, it's also about the people who have been allowed to walk away. They've resigned or they've moved to different positions within the organisation and none of them have been asked to account for themselves. It is unfinished business for a lot of people."

Sarah Wedgwood, the vice-chair and chair of the clinical governance committee until she resigned from the board in March 2017, said victims wanted to see those responsible held to account in some public forum where they could be asked to explain their actions and apologise.

She added: "The leadership of the organisation has been allowed to disappear with nothing concretely stated that 'this is what needs to happen to prevent it happening again', in Highland or the rest of the NHS.

"And Sturrock made it very clear in his report that things had been found dismally wanting. It's very frustrating.

"Why was all this taxpayers money spent and expectations raised if none of the people responsible will be held to account? I'm dismayed, appalled and I'm very sad, because the NHS is a fantastic organisation."

Mike Evans, who chaired the audit committee before he resigned in April 2017, said the wider lessons from NHS Highland's experience were also being lost.

"They can change the rules, they can change the processes, they can change the people at NHS Highland," said Mr Evans. "But whilst they are still courting the same processes and procedures above them then the reality is that it can happen again, and I don't think that Government is really willing to confront that.

"I think if you look at the current situation in Edinburgh, the current situation in Glasgow and previous situations in Tayside or Grampian, they all share the same characteristics as NHS Highland so that culture is actually prevalent throughout the NHS and perhaps into the Scottish Government."

A spokesman for NHS Highland said it had "clearly and publicly" accepted the issues raised in the Sturrock report.

He said: "We are setting up our process to provide healing and support to those who have been harmed by their experiences.

"We are committed to rebuilding trust, by creating an environment based on kindness, civility and respect and the whole Board and Leadership team are fully committed and working tirelessly to achieve this."

He added that specific issues relating to current board members "will be properly investigated" but must be directed to the new chairman, Professor Boyd Robertson.

A Scottish Government spokesman said Ms Freeman would visit NHS Highland in the new year where "she hopes the whistleblower group she met in the summer will be able to meet with her again".