A CAMPAIGN group led by doctors has said it is ‘frustrated and disappointed’ after NHS leaders failed once more to set a timeline for an urgently needed Highland hospital, that is already delayed by 18 years.

Land was acquired six years ago to replace the crumbling Belford Hospital in Lochaber, which is Scotland’s busiest rural general and the main centre for mountain trauma but the hospital was at one point expected to be in place by 2002.

However, the plan stalled and despite the creation of a new steering group last year and successive meetings, campaigners say very little progress has been made while other hospital projects in Skye and Aviemore have gained headway.

A new £32million orthopaedic centre has also been approved by NHS Highland in Inverness.

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In November the Chief Executive of NHS Highland pledged to publish the timeline for the new hospital the following month. 

It was then delayed until March and the health board has now said it will be November before it is submitted to the Scottish Government, alongside the initial agreement - the first stage in the approval process. 

Doctors say the hospital, which opened in 1965, has excellent and well-trained staff but is not fit-for-purpose. It has one operating theatre and routine operations can be postponed if there are emergency cases.

Services have gradually been eroded and patients must travel to Raigmore hospital in Inverness for the majority of specialist clinics.

Scottish finance secretary, Kate Forbes, who is the sitting MSP for Lochaber, Skye and Badenoch said she was disappointed by the lack of progress by NHS Highland.

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The hospital’s delay is likely to become a key issue in the election battleground.

Labour candidate John Erskine, who is contesting Ms Forbes seat, said: “Fort William urgently needs this new hospital, and I’m very concerned that Lochaber is being left behind with other new hospitals in Skye and Aviemore, projects which were originally behind Lochaber and have leapfrogged the new Belford.”

The campaign has been led by former head surgeon David Sedgwick, retired GP Michael Foxley and John Hutchison formerly of Highland Council, who was made an MBE in 2014 for services to rural communities.

Mr Sedgwick has said that when he was appointed in 1992, he was assured by health leaders that a new hospital would be in place “in the next ten years”. 

He said the new hospital would allow patients to have routine surgery locally and would "provide some resilience for care" for transport issues or bad weather.

Dr Foxley, who is a former NHS Highland board member said: “We are all disappointed and frustrated.

“John, David and I were promised a hard timeline by now and that is still not available.

“I led a team to buy the site, for the new hospital and a STEM centre, exactly six years ago and there has been no progress.

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“In that time new hospitals in Aviemore (to serve Strathspey) and Broadford (Skye) have been built and work has started to build the major new cold case surgical unit in Inverness.

“We are working on ways to demonstrate the real frustration and anger throughout Lochaber and will be  seeking cross-party support for a new hospital during the election.”

Patricia Jordan, community representative on the steering group, added: “ We’ve been on this steering group for six years and the clinical model has not moved forward for some time and it is so opaque that community reps, after several years, still do not know the level of service that is being planned.”

Louise Bussell, NHS Highland’s Chief Officer,  insisted that the hospital is a key priority for the health board.

She said:  “We understand the frustrations and concerns of the local community and we will continue to work closely with them to achieve the ultimate goal of a new, fit for purpose hospital.  

“NHS Highland is keen to be able to give a timetable for this to happen, however there is due process that needs to be completed in order that we move to that stage and this is the Initial Agreement, the timescale is confirmed for this as no later than November 2021, earlier if possible.”