The continuing lack of full ambulance cover for the isles was denounced this week as “outrageous” by North Isles councillor Gary Cleaver.
Despite months of lobbying by the council and local MSP Tavish Scott there is still no formal arrangement by the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) to ensure evacuation of patients to hospital from Unst or Fetlar at night by ferry or helicopter.
The old system, which required ferrymen to volunteer to be on-call, is no longer reliable due to lack of crewmen living locally. Last year in Unst there were five emergencies when no ferry was available for the patient to be taken by sea and road, requiring the Coastguard rescue helicopter to be scrambled.
Islanders worry the uncertainty will get worse when ferry cutbacks are agreed.
The issue of cover came into focus again this week – thankfully with a happy ending – when a woman living in Unst gave birth in the coastguard helicopter while being flown to hospital in Lerwick. The baby was delivered by two crewmen with paramedic training because there was no doctor or nurse on board.
According to Mr Cleaver there is concern about what would happen if no helicopter was available and able to fly a patient out of Unst at night and the ferry was unavailable.
The SAS said this week talks were ongoing between it and the council to “seek a solution”, while working closely with local clinicians. It was in Shetland earlier this week for more discussions.
Also present at the talks was NHS Shetland. Clinical services director Simon Bokor-Ingram said yesterday there was still “a little way to go” before any final agreement is in place regarding out-of-hours ferry use.
In the meantime, SAS maintains that air evacuations can be done by the Sumburgh-based “Jigsaw” helicopter operated for the oil industry or even a MoD helicopter from the Scottish mainland, if the Coastguard helicopter is not called on.
But Mr Cleaver said: “There is a massive gap between what we are told we have and what we actually have,” he said. “It’s a patchwork quilt that hasn’t been sewn up very well.”
The Jigsaw is paid for by oil companies for evacuations offshore and cannot fly at night without specific authorisation, he said. As far as he knows, it has not evacuated any patient from Unst because it is always the coastguard helicopter that is tasked to come. But it too could be out on an oil job or another mission when required in Unst, he said. The MoD helicopter would take so long to come it might be too late.
Asked what he thought might have to happen before action is taken to plug the gap, he said: “It’s going to be bodies, isn’t it?”
However, The Shetland Times understands work is ongoing to create landing sites suitable for the “Jigsaw” Super Puma to land in all the islands in darkness as an alternative to the Coastguard helicopter.
Mr Cleaver recognised that the SAS plane service to carry patients out of Shetland was excellent but it was no use if patients could not get to Sumburgh.
“I think it’s outrageous. They’ve got the provision there apart from that last little bit that would provide a really good service and because they haven’t been able to achieve it everyone has turned their backs and started whistling.”
He called on all the emergency services to “put their hands in their pockets” to pay for ferry workers to be rostered to run isles ferries in emergencies.
* Full story in this week’s Shetland Times.