Fears over out-of-hours medical cover on Barra

Barra Hospital

NHS Western Isles seem determined to impose a “very worrying” out-of-hours care model on Covid-hit Barra, one of the island’s two GPs said this week.

Dr Mark Willcox told the Free Press he has tried on three occasions to discuss the matter with the health board, but each time they have refused to engage with him.

His colleague in the Barra Medical Practice in Castlebay, Dr Scott McMinn, is due to retire in April and Dr Willcox alleged that NHS Western Isles are to press ahead with their own arrangements for out-of-hours cover, cutting out the GPs completely. No information on what exactly will replace the current arrangements, which also include cover for St Brendan’s Hospital, in April has been released by the health authority.

“We had an agreement a year ago that we would get a new contract within two weeks”, explained Dr Willcox. “But a new medical director was appointed and the assistant medical director went to a different post.

“The new director said he was not going to honour the promise of a new contract and instead rural practitioners and A&E specialists would be used to staff the hospital. We were disappointed not to be involved in the plans but were pleased this was going to be an uplift for the island”.

Dr Willcox said he “heard nothing more” until November 2020, when NHS Western Isles issued a “factually incorrect” statement that the Barra GPs were to withdraw out-of-hours cover as of this April.

He added: “We asked them again what their plans were and heard nothing. In response to an article in online website ‘The Ferret’ on 31st January, they said non-doctor models and technology would be used, which is very worrying.

“Barra is very isolated. Getting patients off the island, even in the summer, is often difficult and takes a long time. We have been told by the health board there is robust contingency planning in place, but this is nonsense. It just isn’t true.

“I spent a long time going through the appropriate channels but I just keep getting fobbed off. In seven week’s time NHS Western Isles are supposed to take over the service. I presume they are going to put something safe in place.”

Dr Willcox paid tribute to the hard-working health care staff on the island but added that they are struggling to “paper over the cracks, as the cracks have become chasms.”

In response, NHS Western Isles reiterated that the GPs had “withdrawn” from providing out-of-hours medical cover.

A spokeswoman added: “The practice has been clear that it will revert to a general medical services practice. In these circumstances the remedial actions required of NHS Western Isles cannot directly involve the Barra Medical Practice.

“Any discussions regarding service delivery after March 2021 must be had with the NHS Western Isles staff initially so we will not be confirming arrangements prior to that. Following that, wider discussion and communication will take place.”

In recent weeks Barra has been dealing with an extensive outbreak of coronavirus which has seen 50 confirmed cases and almost 200 people required to self-isolate. In total seven people required to be airlifted off the island for further treatment.