David Alston resigns as NHS Highland Chair with immediate effect

David Alston has stepped down from the position of Chair of the NHS Highland Boards this morning with immediate effect. Photo credit: Gair Fraser.

NHS Highland announced today that David Alston will step down from his role as Chair of the Board with immediate effect.  Mr Alston first joined NHS Highland as a Non-Executive Director in 2003 and, in April 2016 became chair of the health board and has led the organisation since then.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has appointed Professor Boyd Robertson as the interim Chair of NHS Highland. Professor Robertson will work alongside Chief Executive Iain Stewart, who took up the post at the end of January, to lead the future direction of the health board. Professor Robertson is a former principal of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig College, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and has extensive experience in Scotland’s public life, including senior leadership roles.

Mr Alston said “I am immensely grateful to all of the team here at NHS Highland. It has been my privilege to serve as a director of this incredible health board since 2003 and as its Chair since 2016.  Throughout my time with NHS Highland, we have seen many changes and have overcome many challenges.  However, the need for change continues and is probably now greater than ever.

“NHS Highland needs to adapt itself to be able to deliver the first class health services our people deserve. At the same time, the board needs to live within its means, balancing the books whilst promoting new ways of working.  I believe that a new chair at this time, as the board embarks upon a new programme of service transformation, will provide a fresh approach and enable the service to look forward with confidence.”

During Mr Alston’s tenure, the local health authority has faced questions over its provision of out-of-hours care in Skye, Raasay and Lochalsh, including the downgrading of Portree hospital, which local group SOS-NHS Skye have campaigned against vigorously for several years.

(From left) SOS-NHS Skye members, Catriona MacDonald and Mhairi MacDonald protest against the downgrading of Portree Hospital during a demonstration in 2017. Photo credit: Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

In response, NHSH commissioned Sir Lewis Ritchie to produce an out-of-hour report outlining health care recommendations for Skye, Raasay, Lochalsh and South West Ross which was published in May 2018.

Progress has been made through the implementation of the Ritchie Report, with the provision of 24-hour urgent care at Portree Hospital on schedule to be fully operational by May of this year. The Scottish Ambulance Service has also recruited an additional six paramedics to be stationed at Portree Hospital, which will enable the facility to provide 24/7 cover.

Representatives from NHS Highland, the Scottish Ambulance Service, Highland Council, NHS24, local health care professionals, and the local community discuss the implementation of the Ritchie Report recommendations during a meeting in February. Photo credit: Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

Allegations of a decade-long culture of bullying within NHS Highland have also presented a significant challenge for Mr Alston’s leadership.  A letter published in the ‘The Herald’ last September by four senior clinicians raising the issue resulted in the GMB union receiving more than 100 testimonials of alleged grievances from former and current staff members.

Pictured (L-R) Dr Alastair Todd, Dr Iain Kennedy and Dr Chris Williams. The NHS Highland whistleblowers and GMB  make a formal statement about the alleged culture of bullying within the local authority at a press conference held in the Greenhouse Business Centre, Inverness late 2018.

Indeed in November, GMB Union regional organiser Liz Gordon told the Free Press that NHS staff on Skye were amongst the “most fearful” she had spoken to following a series of meetings held with past and present health board staff members in Portee and Broadford

ln late November 2018, the Scottish Government announced that a QC-led inquiry would be conducted by John Sturrock QC into the allegations.

A spokesperson for the whistleblowing doctors and the GMB union said: “Since August 2018, our group has been raising awareness of a systemic culture of bullying in NHS Highland covering at least a decade.

When the whistleblowers and the GMB union met with Government representatives last November one of our requests was for clear accountability from the leadership of NHS Highland. We are encouraged to see the start of that accountability being demonstrated.

We also called for an independent review of the culture in NHS Highland. Mr John Sturrock QC has been working on this and we look forward to seeing his review when it is completed.”

Editorial: Alston departure offers chance for “encouraging” replacement

A former principal of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig College, Professor Boyd Robertson will assume the role of interim chair following Mr Alston’s resignation.

Kate Forbes MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch said the new leadership marked “an important day for NHS Highland”.

She said: “This is an important day for NHS Highland, with new leadership at the helm.

“I am grateful to David Alston for his service to Highland communities and wish him well for the future.

“It’s exciting to welcome Boyd Robertson to this post on an interim basis, as he brings with him extensive experience of working, living and serving in the Highlands. I look forward to working with him.

“Over the last few years, there have been a number of challenges in the Highlands including Skye hospital, Raasay and Glenelg.

Kate Forbes MSP stands in support of members of SOS-NHS Skye after a surgery held in Portree. Photo credit: Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

“I hope that new leadership at the top signifies a change of direction in engaging with, listening to and delivering for the communities I represent.”

Ian Blackford MP said he was “delighted” that Boyd Robertson had agreed to take on what he described as a “critical role”. He went on to add: “Along with Chief Executive, Iain Stewart, he will now head up a renewed effort to provide the best health care provision to the deserving people of the highlands and islands.

“We all know there has been a number of challenges of late. The exceptionally hard working front line staff deserve to know that all is being done to improve things, as do the patients who are in need of care

“Boyd has extensive experience of leadership roles and I am positive that he is the man to drive forward change and improvements to the organisation. Both Boyd and Iain Stewart will have my full support as we all work towards delivering the excellent health care service that people deserve.

“Real progress is being made to sort out the issues that staff and patients had raised. The Health Secretary, Jeanne Freeman deserves enormous credit for work she has put in to ensure health care in the Highlands and nationwide is the best that it can be.”

Article by Adam Gordon

Editorial: David Alston’s departure offers chance for “encouraging replacement”