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Concerns have been raised by community members after a project to replace a 50-year-old hospital has ‘fallen silent’.
In 2015, the Highland Council (HC) bought the site on the Blar Mor, next to the health centre, to replace the Belford Hospital.
The eight-acre plot was being sold by Tesco as part of its portfolio of surplus sites and had set an imminent closing date.
Since then a steering group has been set up and the NHS says ‘significant background work’ has taken place but readers recently contacted The Oban Times wondering why no ‘visible’ progress has been made.
One reader said he was prompted to get in touch after hearing skilled staff had left the Belford in part because of a lack of belief the hospital had a viable future.
‘The Belford has been punching above its weight, probably for the past 20 to 30 years in terms of expertise. Highly skilled medical professionals have come here instead of getting the big bucks down south because they like the lifestyle but that is all gone.’
Michael Foxley, a former council leader, was a driving force in getting the project up and running.
He agreed there has been less progress than he would have wanted and a lack of permanent consultants is certainly a factor.
He added: ‘The sad loss of Sarah Prince, who was a gifted consultant, along with another who has retired and one who left to go to Oban makes things very difficult. I have been told there are meetings every month to keep the project going but that some had been cancelled since the death of Ms Prince.’
Concern is also mounting regarding the suggestion people from Oban may have to travel to Fort William for health care as a reuslt of planned cuts.
Mr Foxley is ‘in theory’ not against the idea of specialised services being in Oban or Fort William and that overall he is optimistic about the future of the Belford.
‘Providing it is in addition to core services, I think doubling the catchment area could actually help,’ he said. ‘This is part of a national issue in recruiting staff in rural areas but I believe if we tackle it regionally then we might be in with a chance.’
The Oban Times contacted the NHS, which said it remains committed to developing services in Lochaber, which includes a modern hospital building.
A spokesperson explained: ‘The process that we follow in such cases is laid down by the Capital Investment Group of the Scottish Government. It is complex and takes account of all local services and models of care as well as hospital services and needs to look to in future as well as current needs. We are at early stages of that process and it is important we get it right. It is important there is strong clinical engagement and, due to staffing problems, that has been challenging in recent months.
‘Nevertheless, background work is ongoing with our service planning department and others to progress the data modelling work required. A very productive meeting was held last week and the data will be reviewed on an ongoing basis. A further meeting is planned for the end of February to discuss the next steps and to scope any additional information that will be required.
‘In addition, a workshop for all Belford Hospital heads of department, along with representation from the Lochaber District, has been arranged for next month to look at current services, future aspirations and ideas. This will be crucial in shaping a clinical model on which the initial agreement with the Scottish Government will be developed.’
According to community members, the ‘Belford issue’ is one which highlights the lack of a community council in the area. Fort William Community Council was disbanded in November last year after two failed elections and a third is scheduled for March.