by ADAM GORDON
Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford for found himself in the eye of the storm on Wednesday during a protest in Portree against the redesign of healthcare services in Skye, Lochalsh and South West Ross.
The protest took place outside Tigh na Sgire, Highland Council’s office in Portree, where Mr Blackford had been holding a surgery. The MP met with a group of more than 40 people protesting against the present provision and future plans for health care in the area.
Addressing the group of protesters, which eventually grew to almost a hundred, Mr. Blackford said: “I put out a statement last week on the issue of the temporary closure of urgent care at Portree Hospital and I have spoken to the NHS about it and told them it’s unacceptable. I will continue to fight and make sure we have these services here. All I can do is make sure we hold NHS Highland to account.”
Portree resident Heckie Cormack interjected to challenge the MP. He said: “Ian, hang on a second, you’re not getting away with that. For three years you have been saying that you have been holding them to account — where are your results of holding them to account?”
Mr Blackford countered by stating that as a member of the Westminster Parliament he had “no direct responsibility for NHS Highland”, and that the matter was the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. However, he added that he was “not walking away” from the issue.
Mr Cormack described the MP’s answer as “flannel” and said: “We are the people who put you in a job, and you are standing here before us saying that for the last three years you have been wrestling and arguing with people for us?”
“Where is it going to end? And when is what you are requesting going to be remedied?”
Another protester asked Mr Blackford to read a letter dated 7th September from the Scottish Government’s Health Performance and Delivery Directorate which had been sent to Stephen Varwell, chair of Kilmuir Community Council. She said: “They are actually saying there has never been accident and emergency cover in Portree, which is absolute lies!”
Mr Blackford said he had met with NHS Highland chair David Alston three weeks ago and addressed the issue. He said: “I told him that the perception of the people on this island is that accident and emergency has been in Portree.” He went on to say that NHS Highland argued that “it wasn’t accident and emergency but minor injuries”.
Amid a cacophony of noise from the crowd dismissing NHS Highland’s claims, Mr Blackford finished his point by saying: “I said to NHS Highland, that whatever you call it does not matter. As far as the people are concerned what they have been getting is an A and E service and that is what you should be providing.”
Although Mr Blackford — who leads the SNP at Westminster — spent around 30 minutes engaging with those protesting, and while health is a devolved issue, it is debatable whether his answers will have done much to assuage the anger of those present.
In a statement issued in response to the protests, NHS Highland said: “NHS Highland’s chief executive and chair are meeting with the Cabinet Secretary, the leader of the Highland Council and a local elected representative today (Thursday 21st September) to discuss the redesign.
“Naturally, we are very concerned about the ongoing opposition from some people but we have to put in place sustainable services and that is the point of the redesign. In the new arrangements, the vast majority of services will remain in Portree and there will be improved community services, and transport options are being explored.
“At today’s (Thursday 21st September) meeting, we will look to explore what else we can reasonably do to reassure people further. We will issue a further statement once we have reflected on the outcome of the meeting.”
Ian Blackford MP: “The NHS needs to listen and understand that the trust has broken down to the extent it has. It is a terrible situation for the NHS to be in. People in the north of Skye don’t have faith and trust in them. The NHS has to listen to what I think are legitimate concerns that people have about the delivery of service in this part of the island.”
Mairi MacDonald, SOS-NHS: “I don’t feel confident Ian Blackford is going to do anything. He was elected as a local MP, and everything was supposed to be sewn up then. He said there were going to be beds and emergency 24-hour cover and three years down the line that hasn’t happened yet. Feelings are running high, people are really worried — this is our lives we are talking about. Old, young, everyone’s really concerned.”
Annie Ferguson, a former nurse living in Skinidin: “I was a trained nurse myself and I have written to Kate Forbes because I heard that the nurses were cooking. That is outwith the rules and regulations of the Nursing and Midwifery Council. As I nurse I was not allowed to go and cook because it was not within our remit under the code of conduct. How are the staff being treated? That is a major question that needs to be asked!”
Councillor John Gordon: “Tensions are running high in Portree and north Skye as result of the closure of out-of-hours service and nurses having to feed patients as there are no kitchen staff. Most people in Portree and north Skye just feel that the next step is Portree Hospital closing, so obviously people were quite passionate in their arguments today and in their questioning and comments.”