MSP blames axing of flights for Barra’s patient transport problems

MV Loch Alainn, which operates on the Barra-Eriskay route Photo: CalMac Ferries Ltd

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan has blamed the axing of the inter-island air service between Barra and Benbecula for the ongoing difficulties in transporting patients and medical staff on and off Barra.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar cut the service altogether in 2013, pointing to the cost of maintaining the link – £148,000 per year – as the reason. Loganair flights still operate between Benbecula and Stornoway.

Dr Allan told the Free Press: “The withdrawal of the Barra-Benbecula air link had a massive impact on how connected the Western Isles are. This has had particularly harsh consequences for patients in Barra, who often have to spend days away from their homes to make appointments in Stornoway or Inverness. Unless these transport links can be restored, we should be finding ways to enable Barra patients to access more services from Glasgow.”

Concerns voiced by health campaigner Jessie MacNeil and the Barra locality planning group focus on transporting out-patients and even emergency patients to Uist by the Sound of Barra ferry for onward flight connections to hospital in Stornoway. Also affected are nursing staff, for example cardiac nurses or diabetes specialists, who are unable to get regular bookings on the ferry to come from the Uists.

Mrs MacNeil added: “It is the total lack of consideration for Barra patients when looking at timetables and also the insistence that we must go to Stornoway or Inverness, when Glasgow would be much more accessible and most of us have family in Glasgow.”

Because Barra no longer has an airlink with Benbecula, the island is “not considered” when timetables are changed for the Benbecula-Stornoway air service, she added.

“When it is an afternoon flight from Benbecula to Stornoway,Barra patients have to leave Barra on the 11.10am ferry [to Eriskay] and be in Benbecula airport until 5.30pm,” Mrs MacNeil explained. “When it is a morning flight from Benbecula the patient has to stay overnight in Uist then depart benbecula at 8.30am.”

When approached for comment on the transport difficulties, the comhairle directed Free Press inquiries to NHS Western Isles. The comhairle’s only role is to “facilitate discussions” between the health authority and the Barra locality planning group, which first raised the issue of health-related transport problems, a spokesman said.

A brief statement from NHS Western Isles said: “We have encountered some difficulties. However, we have regular contact with CalMac to ensure transportation of patients and service-critical staff is prioritised.”

On that point, Alasdair Allan said: “While CalMac do have provisions in place for patients with urgent medical appointments, there is a strong argument for expanding this to include people like nurses and carers to ensure local health services are properly staffed.”