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Whistleblower says Badenoch and Strathspey being left without emergency ambulance cover on weekly basis

By Gavin Musgrove

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Aviemore ambulance station which moved from on-call to shift work earlier this year.
Aviemore ambulance station which moved from on-call to shift work earlier this year.

A whistleblower has said the strath is being left regularly without ambulance cover as crews are covering staff shortages in Inverness and it is just sheer good fortune this has yet to have serious repercussions.

The well-placed contact told the Strathy: "Staff shortages really are hitting home and we are getting perilously low on cover.

"We have been struggling on but getting through it but once Inverness started to get short-staffed as well then it really hit home how bad the situation is.

"We have been very lucky there have been no life or death situations so far when there has been no cover but the worry is if this carries on the potential is there for a tragedy."

The individual said recent months had seen an escalation in staff at Aviemore and Kingussie being called into Inverness to cover eight-hour and 12 hour shifts and not just single jobs as in the past.

The source said: "Inverness has been deemed a priority not only over Badenoch and Strathspey but other outlying areas.

"It has been happening on and off since last December locally but more recently it has become almost every weekly.

"The Grantown staff are having to cover the slack as best they can but they are getting pulled over on a regular basis to Tomintoul, Forres and Elgin."

This, it was claimed, is happening despite the strath already being short-staffed itself for paramedics and technicians.

Aviemore station moved away from the controversial on-call system to a 24/7 shift pattern in February in a move that was welcomed for improving safety for both local residents in staff.

However, the lack of Scottish Ambulance Service personnel to operate the system means it is currently adding further pressure on over-worked staff. Three staff are understood to be off sick.

The situation has been made worse by delayed admissions at the region's main hospital due to Covid-19 protocols.

The whistleblower said: "I have never ever seen it as bad as this and it is being compounded by admission delays at Raigmore and other hospitals because of Covid-19 procedures.

"There is usually a wait of a minimum of two-and-a-half hours outside the hospital to get in."

Citing one recent example, the individual said: "There was a Kingussie staff member pulled up to work in Inverness; Aviemore got an emergency call in Kingussie and the Grantown crew was stuck outside at Raigmore Hospital for four-and-half-hours meaning there was no cover in the entire strath for a good number of hours.

"The nearest available ambulance could have been at Pitlochry, Perth, Fort William or even Thurso. Fortunately so far there has been nothing catastrophic but it could happen.

"A local heart-attack victim could be waiting for an hour or even longer for an ambulance."

It is understood Aviemore was without immediate cover from Monday night until Wednesday evening.

Some improvements are in the pipeline with several staff members in training but they are not expected to be able to be on duty until the end of this year.

There is also some sympathy for the SAS over recruitment difficulties caused by the lack of local affordable housing and Central Belt probationers returning south after training locally.

There is a mixture of paramedics and technicians in the strath with four staff in Kingussie, nine in Aviemore and six in Grantown.

The individual estimated around 40 per cent of the time local ambulances are now single-manned meaning the crew member has to wait for back-up. A single-manned ambulance can not transport a patient to hospital.

The whistleblower believes six more staff in total are required for good coverage.

There is one ambulance based in each of Kingussie, Aviemore and Grantown.

Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes has urged the SAS and NHS Highland to investigate the allegations.

She said: “Whilst I recognise that major emergencies are outwith of everyone’s control, crews from Aviemore or Kingussie should not routinely be covering shifts for Inverness and leaving the strath short.

“Having recently visited the site of the new hospital in Aviemore, I was hugely impressed by the facilities and desire for healthcare to be as local as possible – and of course that includes ambulance cover too."

An ambulance service spokesman denied Inverness was being prioritised. He said: "The SAS is a national service and ambulances are not restricted by geographical area in tasking.

"At no stage has Badenoch and Strathspey been left without emergency cover owing to staff being planned to cover shifts in Inverness.

“Staff working conditions and cover in the strath have been enhanced with the successful elimination of on-call working at Aviemore Ambulance Station, with four additional posts allowing the station to move to 24 hour on shift cover.

"Three new staff have also been recruited for Kingussie.

“We continue to recruit at pace for the Badenoch and Strathspey area to complement our existing staff who have worked tirelessly over the last 18 months and continue to work flexibly to support our new recruits through their learning.

"Investment in new ambulances and the latest equipment is progressing along with plans to relocate to the new hospital in Aviemore which will further benefit the community and enhance our integrated working with health and social care partners.”

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