Hundreds of Scots islanders could be set to miss out on medical appointments on the mainland due to the decision to suspend flights to Inverness.

The Chief Executive of NHS Western Isles has warned that the action potentially presents “the most significant disruption to patient services” that the health board has experienced to date outwith the pandemic. 

It comes after Loganair confirmed on Friday that it would be suspending services from Inverness to Stornoway and Benbecula, from March 17, for a period of six weeks. 

Following an analysis of patient appointments and schedules, NHS Western Isles said that around 230 people who require to travel to the capital of the Highlands could potentially be affected. 

The health board also said that up to an additional 270 patients who were scheduled to attend an appointment on-island with a visiting consultant could potentially also still be affected by the suspension of flights, such as patients with appointments in Ophthalmology, Orthotics, ENT and Urology. 

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After being informed by email of that Loganair would be suspending services last week, NHS Western Islands said staff have been working to ensure that all steps are taken to minimise the impact on patients. 

However, the health board stressed that has limited options when such a decision - to suspend a lifeline service - is made. 

Alternative arrangements are currently being made for patients who are well enough to travel by ferry, NHS Western Islands said, while patients who have mainland or inter-island medical appointments that require ferry travel to book ferry tickets are being advised to do so as soon as possible through their local Patient Travel Office.  

For patients who are unable to attend by ferry, NHS Western Isles said it is working to reschedule appointments. 

Where it is possible for consultants to travel to the Western Isles by ferry or to travel from Glasgow, those arrangements are being made, which has meant that disruption for around 100 additional patients has been avoided, the health board confirmed.

Where such workarounds have have not been not possible, some patients who were scheduled to attend an appointment on-island are being offered ferry travel to attend an alternative appointment at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness where there is capacity to accommodate this. 

HeraldScotland: Raigmore Hospital in InvernessRaigmore Hospital in Inverness

At present, there is no capacity in either Glasgow or Edinburgh to accept additional patients from the Western Isles, the health board noted.

NHS Western Isles Chief Executive, Gordon Jamieson, said that the suspension of flights “has come at the worst possible time” for patients on the islands.

He said: “With the exception of the pandemic, this action potentially presents us with the most significant disruption to patient services that we have experienced.  

 “Whilst there would never be a ‘good’ time for a service reduction, this action has come at the worst possible time when there is already significant pressure on the NHS, which makes it difficult to secure alternative options for patients. 

“Our staff across the service are working with colleagues at NHS Highland to ensure that, where there is an alternative arrangement, that we rapidly put that in place. Whilst there will be a workaround for some patients, we are conscious that some patients will miss important appointments, and we continue to explore all options to avoid, as far as possible, any adverse impact. Patients whose appointments will be affected will be contacted by our staff directly, to discuss individual options. 

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 “We would offer our apologies to patients for the unprecedented disruption to services that the suspension of flight services will cause for a prolonged period and would reassure everyone that we will continue to work with patients, partners on the mainland and with Scottish Government colleagues to minimise the impact, where we can, for individuals and families.” 

On Tuesday, we reported that Transport minister Jenny Gilruth said she hopes a new pay offer will "unlock" the dispute that has led to Loganair suspending the flights.  

Anger erupted over the decision while Scottish Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is locked in a dispute with trade union members over pay, initiating walkouts and work-to-rule at airports.

HeraldScotland: NHS Western Isles Chief Executive, Gordon JamiesonNHS Western Isles Chief Executive, Gordon Jamieson (Image: NHS Scotland)

Ms Gilruth, who said there was no warning to ministers of Loganair's action, said there are hopes of a resolution to the pay dispute which will be considered by ministers.

A spokesperson for Loganair said:“We completely understand that this unprecedented step will be unwelcome news to communities who depend on the air services Loganair provides. It’s a step that we are taking with the utmost reluctance and only after careful consideration of all other options.

“We have sadly concluded that it’s simply not realistic to continue our efforts to provide services between HIAL airports when the action short of a strike is intended to disrupt and counter those efforts at every turn.

“The suspension provides advance – even if unwelcome - certainty around which our customers can adjust travel plans, as opposed to facing the risk of on-the-day flight cancellations or significant delays. We hope that the period of suspension – initially through to 30 April – will provide time and space for the parties to this dispute to meet and reach a resolution, enabling these long-running services to resume thereafter.”