Health Secretary in commitment to fully reopen children’s ward at hospital

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has made an “absolute commitment” that the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital in Livingston will fully reopen round the clock in October this year.

Ms Freeman said NHS Lothian bosses were “on track” to achieve this after staff shortages forced them to suspend full-time care for youngsters in July 2017.

As an interim measure, Ms Freeman also announced the ward will reopen four nights a week, on Monday through to Thursday, from March 18 this year.

The Health Secretary said this was “achievable because of improved medical and nursing staff numbers” at the West Lothian hospital, which now has three advanced paediatric nurse practitioners, up from one in September last year.

NHS Lothian bosses are still trying to recruit two consultants for the ward, with the vacancies remaining unfilled after being advertised in the autumn.

Asked about the reopening of the ward in October, Ms Freeman insisted: “We are not talking about promises here, we are talking about an absolute commitment.”

Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs said children’s inpatient facilities at the hospital had been closed on three occasions, in 2012, 2015 and then in 2017.

“Local families across West Lothian will rightly be cynical about the latest SNP promises,” the Conservative said.

Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said the reinstated services “still fall short of the 24-hour consultant-led paediatric care” that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has recommended.

She said: “We do know that over 1,000 children have been transferred to Edinburgh since the out-of-hours closures in 2017, with all the extra stress and expense that that brings for families.”

Since the inpatient service was suspended in 2017, a total of 1,049 children have been transferred to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh – with 906 admitted for treatment.

The remaining youngsters did not require to be admitted, meaning an average of 1.6 patients a day have been transferred.

Ms Freeman said opening the ward four nights a week from March would “provide assurance to members and families that the full reinstatement of the inpatient service is on track to happen in October”.

She told MSPs at Holyrood: “It is also felt the four night interim arrangement would improve further recruitment efforts, as it demonstrates the board’s commitment to fully reinstate the 24/7 inpatient service from October.

“The board will go back out to recruitment for the two consultant posts which were not filled after their efforts in the autumn of last year. Advanced nurse practitioner posts will also continue to be advertised.”

Local MSP Angela Constance said the announcement was a “very positive stride forward” which would be “welcomed by West Lothian parents”.

Speaking about the phased restoration of 24/7 services, Dr Tracey Gillies, medical director at NHS Lothian, said: “We are really pleased that we are able to reinstate children’s inpatient services for four nights of the week in St John’s Hospital.

“We have always said that we could only restore the full service when it was safe and sustainable to do so, and that has been our priority throughout.

“We have conducted rigorous assessments of the new model and we know it will be able to support this short-term approach, until the new members of the team are able to take up their roles in the autumn, which will allow us to fully re-open 24/7 seven days a week.”