HALF of eligible over-75s in the Highlands are still waiting for their Spring Covid booster amid a row over the decision to remove GPs from the rollout.

The region previously had one of the fastest and highest uptakes of any part of Scotland with the majority of family doctors opting to deliver first, second and third doses to patients locally through GP practices, with many running evening and weekend clinics.

ANALYSIS: Why are rural GPs so unhappy with the new Scottish contract? 

However, figures show Highland lagging well behind the national average with just 50 per cent of eligible over-75s - those at least 24 weeks on from their last booster - having had their top-up jag.

That compares to more than 70% in most other boards and over 82% in Lanarkshire and Tayside.

The situation has infuriated Highland GPs who argue that vulnerable and elderly patients have been put needlessly at risk by a push to bring the region into line with the terms of the controversial 2018 Scottish GP contract - opposed by most rural GPs - which stipulates that responsibility for vaccines must pass to health boards.

 

HeraldScotland: Uptake of fourth dose among eligible* over-75s (* must be at least 24 weeks on from previous booster)Uptake of fourth dose among eligible* over-75s (* must be at least 24 weeks on from previous booster)

In most other parts of Scotland, the bulk of Covid vaccinations have been administered via NHS-run community hubs, but GPs in Highland were given leeway to retain the service - tending to vaccinate all but the youngest patients - on the grounds of the region's unique geography and staffing pressures.

The Herald understands that medical leaders had grown frustrated with the exemption, however, and the Scottish Government put pressure on NHS Highland to take on Spring boosters.

There are now claims that the arrangement has backfired, with vaccinator shortages slowing the rollout and a backlash from patients forced to travel miles for the jag.

In Nairn, elderly people were originally given appointments 16 miles away in Inverness, with the health board only relocating them to an arts centre in Nairn in recent days following an outcry from the local community.

Dr Adrian Baker, a Nairn GP, said: "We've had more complaints about the change in vaccination arrangements in the last two week than any other issue during the last two years of the pandemic.

"We're unhappy, our patients are unhappy [but] we're ready, willing, and available to continue to provide all vaccinations to the population that they require."

READ MORE: Why you probably won't be seeing your GP for the Covid jag? 

Some Highland patients in their late 80s are waiting until the end of May for appointments, while one woman said her 94-year-old housebound mother still had no details of her fourth vaccine despite multiple calls to the helpline.

"She has spent hours trying to get information to no avail," she added.

Dr Iain Kennedy, an Inverness GP and medical director for the Highland Local Medical Committee (LMC) - which represents practices across the region - said the vast majority of Highland GPs had wanted to continue with vaccinations.

He said: "Since the new GP contract came out in 2018 our GP members in Highlands have unanimously been of the view that they wish to continue providing vaccination services for their patients across the Highlands.

"Highland LMC has made this point repeatedly over the years but, against our wishes, the service has been taken away from us and - all too predictably - we are now seeing a drop in the vaccination rate."

HeraldScotland: Dr Iain KennedyDr Iain Kennedy

Dr Kennedy also warned of knock-on effects for other patients, adding: "Not only should we be prioritising vulnerable patients who need their next Covid vaccine, but we also need to get the whole NHS service moving again and what we know is happening is that staff are being removed from some hospital and community services to provide vaccinations.

"We're depleting staff who are required for remobilisation, when we are already willing to continue doing the service."

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, a Highlands MSP, said the low uptake was "deeply concerning".

He said: “These figures must be an urgent wake-up call for the SNP Government to engage directly with health boards and GPs across the Highlands to ensure this roll-out speeds up immediately.”

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Following criticism about travel distances, NHS Highland set up a helpline to allow patients to rebook appointments to clinics closer to home.

However Rhoda Grant, a Labour MSP for the Highlands, said she fears some patients "simply ignored their appointment offer initially because it would have been impossible for them to attend".

She added: "These people need to be identified and offered local, or home, appointments. Given the rates of Covid in the Highlands, booster vaccinations for our over 75s are urgently needed."

HeraldScotland: Of the mainland boards, Highland has the sixth highest incidence of Covid based on testing. For Scotland as a whole, one in 25 people are currently estimated to be infectedOf the mainland boards, Highland has the sixth highest incidence of Covid based on testing. For Scotland as a whole, one in 25 people are currently estimated to be infected

A spokesman for NHS Highland stressed the that rollout remained "on course to achieve the Spring Booster campaign targets in the required timeframe".

He said: "We recognise that the Spring Booster dose roll out is slower than previously achieved. This is due to a number of issues including an ongoing recruitment programme to support the vaccination programme across NHS Highland and continued high instances of Covid-19 in the community.

"We are responding as fast as we can to requests for additional clinic locations, however we need to balance this against available staffing resources and availability of suitable facilities.

"NHS Highland greatly appreciates the work undertaken by GPs across Highland, Argyll and Bute to support our vaccination programme.

"Like other Boards in Scotland, transfer of vaccination workload from GP practices to Board services is a priority area in line with the new GP contract (2018). NHS Highland is working to achieve this in full by March 2023."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it is aiming to vaccinate everyone eligible for Spring boosters - which also includes younger patients who are clinically vulnerable - by the end of June and "NHS Highland is well on track to meet this aim".

She added that health boards "have the flexibility to deliver vaccines to suit local populations and particular geographical areas, and will be able to enter into their own arrangements with GP practices where appropriate".