2. Back in January, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport made “an absolute commitment” to members of the Scottish Parliament that the children’s ward at St John’s hospital in Livingston would be open 24/7 by October this year. When October came around, she told Parliament that that did not constitute “a promise” but was simply “a commitment”—so it was not even “an absolute commitment” any more. It is now November and St John’s children’s ward remains closed three nights a week. When will it finally be open to those sick children who need it 24/7?
The ward will be open 24/7 as soon as it is clinically safe for it to be so for children and when the recruitment levels, which have been difficult, reach a level at which it can be open. Richard Leonard may correct me if I am wrong, but I assume that he is not arguing that the ward should be open when it is not clinically safe for children. That is the answer to Richard Leonard’s question and he might want to accept it.
The First Minister knew about the problems seven years ago. Surely by now she should have ensured that that hospital is safe and it is reasonable to have it functional for children again. However, it is not just children who need to stay in hospital who are being let down by the Government; it is out-patients too. Here is what 12-year-old Erin from Whitburn told us:
“I’m visually impaired. This means I attend hospital appointments for my eyes. Ever since I was nine months old these appointments were at St Johns in Livingston.”
Last month, though, Erin was sent to Edinburgh, which means, in her words,
“missing a whole day of school which I am not pleased about. This sudden change of location is unfair.”
Erin might not have a vote yet, but she does have a voice and she deserves an answer. Will the First Minister therefore explain to Erin why she has to miss a whole day of school and why she cannot get an appointment at her local hospital?
I am sure that Richard Leonard knows this, but separate from the work that is going on to reopen the in-patient service at St John’s, there is a strand of work to take appointments back from Edinburgh to St John’s. My answer to Erin would be this: of course we want her to be treated in her local hospital, St John’s, but it is vital that she gets the best possible treatment. There are recruitment challenges involved that are not unique to Scotland but are United Kingdom-wide and, often, Europe-wide challenges.
Our first responsibility and obligation is to ensure that there is clinically safe, high-quality care for any young person who needs it, which is what we will continue to focus on. I understand that the health secretary and Angela Constance met families this week to discuss those issues, and we will continue to keep them fully updated.
The consequence out in the real world is this: it is another winter for families with sick children travelling into Edinburgh at night, with all the additional costs and stress that that brings. We now also have out-patients such as Erin facing the same ordeal. Meanwhile, we have a children’s hospital in Edinburgh costing £1.4 million a month that cannot open its doors until October 2020. Does the First Minister not understand how angry parents and patients, including children, are over her Government’s failure to protect and deliver children’s health services? Is it not clear that the Scottish National Party cannot be trusted with the national health service? Will the First Minister apologise to Erin and all those children and their families who rightly expect local, accessible treatment and care? Will she act urgently to reinstate that at St John’s in Livingston?
We will continue to ensure that our health service gets the investment and the number of staff that it needs. We will not shy away from difficult issues such as recruitment challenges but will always ensure that we are supporting clinically safe, high-quality treatment as close to people’s homes as possible. However, the first priority is always patient safety.
Regarding the SNP’s record in this area, when the SNP came into office in 2007, I was the health secretary. At the time, a number of local hospitals were under threat, whether it was the Vale of Leven in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board area or, indeed, St John’s hospital. If they had been left on the track that Labour had them on, those hospitals would probably not be open at all right now. That is the reality. The accident and emergency units at Monklands and Ayr would have been closed. We have protected local services, and we will continue to support them, but we will continue to prioritise patient safety, because that is what any responsible Government does—and that is something that I do not know Richard Leonard will ever get the opportunity to be.