PLANS for a new Highland hospital which was expected to be in place 18 years ago could be modelled on another newly-built rural general built in Orkney, doctors say.

A pressure group of GPs and a former head surgeon is writing to NHS Highland to question the “inexcusable” delays in replacing the crumbling Belford hospital in Fort William and hope to rally the Lochaber community's support for the fight.

Dr Michael Foxley, who is also a former councillor, helped negotiate the land for the hospital five years ago from Tesco for £2 million, on a site identified as suitable for the build 15 years ago.

SNP MP for the area Ian Blackford has said he is prepared to campaign if there is no movement, and expressed concern about a possible loss in surgical capacity, while MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, has asked for plans to be “significantly speeded up”.

READ MORE: Former head surgeon raises concerns over delay to new Fort William hospital 

Former Belford head surgeon David Sedgwick, who is part of the pressure group, says that when he was appointed in 1992 he was told by his employers, he “would be working in a new hospital within 10 years”.

"Fort William has a solid history of fighting to protect local services. 

NHS Highland has said it is taking the project forward after clinical teams were re-directed to the Covid effort. 

HeraldScotland:

Mr Sedgwick said: “The four of us have been involved in this for 20 years and we have nothing to show for it but an incomplete document.

“Five years after the land was acquired we have inconclusive and postponed meetings, no local project manager, no complete business case, no agreed clinical model – despite determined input by hospital staff.

“The only thing we have is opposition to specific needs, eg two theatres and a safe place for mental health patients.

“It’s very hard to see how Covid has occupied the (health board’s) time. There has been very little Covid so far across the Highlands.

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“They are progressing work for a new hospital in Skye and a new multi-million centre for orthopaedic surgery.

“We’ve been told they want to cut the number of operating theatres from two to one.

“We have the busiest A&E out of the six rural general hospitals because of road and mountain accidents.

“One of our other concerns is that the site is getting houses built around it.”

Dr Foxley helped lead plans for a new health centre, built on An Aird, which was designed to allow a direct link to the new hospital.

As well as working as a GP, Dr Foxley also worked in anaesthetics at the hospital, where he says it carried out major surgery but adds services have gradually been eroded.

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He said: “We called a meeting 20 years ago and 2,800 people turned up. I think this is the way we are going now.

“Three years ago they were sending patients to Inverness for endoscopies when there were empty lists in Fort William.

They said the surgeons had to be seen to be working in Inverness – then of course, the more work they get, the more colleagues they get.”

Mr Sedgwick believes Orkney’s new £65m Balfour Hospital, which opened last year in Kirkwall, could serve as a template for the Fort William plan.

He said: “This is a hospital serving a similar sized population but receiving fewer emergencies and trauma to their A&E department, and yet they have designed and built this hospital. 

“We need to have some vision here in NHS Highland to build a hospital fit for the future. 

“There are an appropriate number of beds, with support facilities including HDU, a suitable A&E department,  two operating theatres and an endoscopy room in a design that appears to meet all appropriate standards.

“Before we submit the business plan, can we be sure that our vision is appropriate and building for the future. 

“This is particularly in the light of a hospital in Inverness which does not have enough beds, operating theatres and car parking space.”

Constituency MSP Kate Foster, said: “I share Mr Sedgwick’s frustration. 

"Fort William has a solid history of fighting to protect local services. 

"The speed of the process needs to reflect the urgency of replacing the Belford."