Controversial plans for patients to travel to Aberdeen by ferry were discussed behind closed doors this morning, despite calls for the matter to be held in public, including from two NHS Shetland board members.
The NHS Shetland board met today with Malcolm Bell, and Andy Glen arguing the issues be discussed in public.
However, NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh maintained patient travel matters should be discussed as a private item.
The meeting was after the board voted 6-4 in favour of making the ferry the default option for islanders travelling to Aberdeen for hospital appointments, in the hope of saving £1 million a year from its £2.8 million travel budget.
The move has been met with heavy criticism, with two online petitions gathering over 1,400 signatures, a paper petition being launched and Shetland MSP Tavish Scott calling for a reversal of the decision in Scottish Parliament.
At the outset of today’s meeting, Mr Kinniburgh said he was aware of the petitions and the public concern around patient travel.
He was also aware of requests for the exempt item to be held in public though for technical and commercial reasons he thought this should not be the case.
“I don’t expect us to make any decisions around implementations,” he said with gaps in the policy to be filled in. He said to reassure the public it had to be clear around the criteria for clinical exemption.
Mr Kinniburgh said the board remained in talks with Loganair about fares and continued to work with NHS Grampian to remove unnecessary patient travel.
Mr Bell said he had written to NHS Shetland chief executive Ralph Roberts and Mr Kinniburgh giving reasons for not holding the matter entirely in private. However, he had not received a reply.
“There’s a legitimate public interest,” said Mr Bell, noting there were members of the public present and “there’s a legitimate public expectation that the discussion today would be held in public.”
“Even at this late stage I would urge you as chair for the patient travel item to be taken largely in public,” he said, arguing Mr Kinniburgh could control the meeting and ensure exempt information was not released.
“It would certainly help to increase confidence in NHS Shetland because that has been damaged over the last two or three weeks.”
Mr Kinniburgh said he understood Mr Bell’s points though it would “very, very difficult” to control the debate when discussions were ongoing with Loganair, and talks covered cost effectiveness and commercial concerns.
“The full debate about implementing this will be taken in a full public meeting where everything will be discussed,” he said.
Suzy Jolly whose online petition pulled in more than 200 signatures spoke at the meeting.
She branded the policy to send more patients on the ferry as “despicable” and “outrageous” and believed some members of the board were treating the people they were meant to represent “in utter contempt”.
She asked why patients in Orkney were not being asked to take the ferry, and called for a reversal of the decision, claiming the board was acting unlawfully under NHS Scotland policies.
“You need to treat people with more respect,” Ms Jolly said as she handed over the petition.
Mr Kinniburgh said the board would seek further clarification on the points Ms Jolly had raised.
“I’m not taking this lying down,” Ms Jolly added.
Mr Roberts said there had been positive discussions with Loganair and there were further meetings being held.
NHS Shetland plans to issue a statement updating the public on the travel policy following the private discussions.