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Further frustration and disappointment was the reaction from local community representatives following the most recent meeting of the steering group for the Belford Hospital replacement project.
At Thursday’s meeting of the Lochaber Health and Social Care Redesign steering group, NHS Highland confirmed that work on the initial agreement for the replacement Belford Hospital at Fort William is under way.
The health board outlined that following further local consultation, the initial agreement will be submitted to the Scottish Government in October for its consideration at a November meeting.
This agreement is the first of three documents which are required as part of the Scottish Capital Investment Manual (SCIM) business case process, demonstrating the case for change and how a replacement Belford fits with both local and national policy and priorities.
NHS Highland’s Chief Officer, Louise Bussell, said she understood progress has been long awaited after years of hard work and local commitment to the development of a new hospital in Lochaber.
‘Along with the establishment of the project board, this submission will be a significant step in the process and underlines that NHS Highland is fully committed to the construction of a replacement Belford Hospital,’ added Ms Bussell.
The steering group heard a presentation from Dr Emma Watson, NHS Highland’s deputy medical director, which outlined the health board’s shared clinical model for Rural General Hospitals across Highland, Argyll and Bute.
Dr Watson said: ‘This is an exciting opportunity for NHS Highland to develop a strategy for the replacement Belford Hospital. Although much work remains to be done in finalising the model for the replacement hospital, it outlines NHS Highland’s plan to enhance the level of local service provision in Lochaber.
‘We are now in the position to identify dedicated time to meet with the community representatives and clinical staff from the Belford Hospital to establish the detail of the clinical model for the new hospital. We will continue to share this with the wider community as it evolves.’
But exasperated local community representatives feel there is little progress happening in reality.
Community representative from Fort William, Patricia Jordan, told us: ‘The NHS Highland statement certainly confirms what happened at the steering group last week but we don’t feel any further forward.
‘We’ve been on this steering group for six years and the clinical model has not moved forward for some time and it is so opaque that community reps, after several years, still do not know the level of service that is being planned.’
John Gillespie, from Caol, also on the steering group, said: ‘Last November the NHS chief executive told us she would publish the timeline for the New Belford by Christmas; then in December said that more time would be needed but that we would have it by the end of March.
‘Now we have been told that the timeline will be included in the initial agreement which is planned to be submitted to the Scottish Government in October 2021.’
And fellow community representative, retired GP and former member of the NHS Highland Board, Michael Foxley, summed feelings up, saying: ‘Frustration is definitely pretty high. It is now six years since I was involved in buying the Blàr Mòr site.
‘We have been told that the New Belford is NHS Highland’s top priority but it certainly doesn’t feel like that.’