DOCTORS and politicians have raised concern over possible plans to cut surgical capacity at a new Highland hospital amid fears the project has stalled, five years after the land was acquired.

Highland Council announced in 2015 that land bought from Tesco for £2million would be the site of a new hospital to replace the crumbling Belford, in Fort William which  is Scotland’s busiest rural general and the main centre for mountain trauma.

Two years later in 2017, the then health secretary Shona Robison told MSPs that “plans were progressing” and that the new building would retain all services.

However, according to well placed sources, the plan appears to have stalled and it has been suggested the new hospital could also lose its surgical capacity amid problems with the recruitment of consultants.

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Mr David Sedgwick, who was a surgeon at the Belford for 21 years, said there is "a lot of interest" from trainee doctors to work in rural areas but a lack of training and attributed the project delay to NHS Highland being too “Inverness centric".

He said: “There are lots of reasons to get it done. It is the busiest rural general hospital and its got great potential. 

“We’ve got the worst road for deaths in Scotland, the best downhill mountain bike course in the world and the two busiest mountain rescue teams. 

HeraldScotland:

“I think (the delay) is because NHS Highland is very Inverness-centric.

“There are difficulties in recruitment and training.

"We know there is a lot of interest amongst students and trainers about working in rural areas but the difficulty is the trainers do not have much experience in this type of  work and therefore are not encouraging in what they are doing.

“There is a recognition that super-specialism has gone too far. Patients want to have a local hospital that provides appropriate services.

“If you had appendicitis in Sauchiehall Street and you were told you were going to Carlisle you wouldn’t be very happy, but these demands are being made on patients from rural areas

“If they are going to have a big operation that’s very specialist they will want to go to a big centre but if they want to have a routine operation, they want to go to their own local hospital and not travel 70 or 100 miles.

“If you had appendicitis in Sauchiehall Street and you were told you were going to Carlisle you wouldn’t be very happy, but these demands are being made on patients from rural areas to travel that sort of distances across roads that can be single track.

“There are six rural general hospitals serving a population of 280,000 in Scotland, so they are serving a significant population.

"Why are we making people travel more and more when we can place surgeons appropriately?”

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The Scottish Government said it will expect NHS Highland to involve 'all stakeholders' in discussions around the new hospital's treatment capacity.

Ian Blackford, SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said he is prepared to campaign publicly for surgical services to be retained and said the new hospital should also include cancer treatment - some patients are required to travel as far as Inverness for chemotherapy.

He said: “I understand what NHS Highland is having to cope with now and obviously that’s the priority, but we need the Fort William hospital to go ahead and it’s really critical that it has the general surgical capability.

“The powers that be at Raigmore are not keen to do that, which in my opinion is a disgrace.

"I’m not prepared to let that go and I will campaign publicly on that.”

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Kate Forbes, MSP for the area, said: "I raised this with senior management at NHS Highland a matter of weeks ago asking for this to be significantly speeded up. 

“The land is there, the objective is clear and the steering group have given a lot of time and effort to this.

"It’s important that the process works in such a way that inspires confidence and that actions are delivered in a timeous matter so that the people of Lochaber can make use of a brand new Belford sooner rather than later."

Another Belford source said the health board would be likely to attribute the delay to the pandemic.

Katherine Sutton, NHS Highland's Chief Officer for Acute Services, said: "Much of our business as usual activity was obviously paused during the recent Covid-19 lockdown period whilst our clinicians were redirected towards managing the response to the pandemic. 

"As we came out of lockdown the project teams, comprising many of our key clinical staff, have been re-established to support taking the project forward for the new hospital in Fort William."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "We are aware that NHS Highland are developing a business case to replace the Belford Hospital in Fort William and look forward to reviewing this work when it is complete.

“A key part of that review will be to determine how surgical services will be provided in the future, and we expect NHS Highland to involve all relevant stakeholders in the discussions.”

The current Belford hospital was opened in April 1965, almost 20 years after a report had recommended a replacement. 

By 1950 a site was being sought, but progress was slow and the planning did not get under way until 1957 with work commencing in1962.

The Belford was officially opened by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon in April 1965.

It provided 30 surgical and 12 medical beds, along with 10 maternity beds. In 1982 a new ward was added.