Jamie Stone warns Caithness maternity model is 'a recipe for tragedy'
Jamie Stone has warned that maternity provision in Caithness is "a recipe for tragedy" and urged the Scottish Government to recognise the "dangerous realities" facing mothers who have to make the 100-mile journey to Raigmore to give birth.
The MP has written to First Minister Humza Yousaf calling for reform of the current Caithness maternity model, highlighting that the northern A9 has been closed numerous times because of extreme weather – most recently during Storm Babet last month.
Mr Stone also accused the SNP-led government of a "dangerous neglect of the Highlands" through its "obsessions with centralising services and catering for the central belt".
In his letter to Mr Yousaf, Mr Stone said: "One can only imagine the fear and terror that heavily pregnant mums experience having to face this journey while in labour."
He also pointed out that when the main road is shut Caithness is "landlocked".
Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) has been pressing for the so-called Orkney model – a midwife-led unit backed up by consultants – to be introduced locally. Around 80 per cent of Orkney mothers give birth in their local area.
Mr Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said: “This is a recipe for tragedy under the watch of a Scottish Government who have promised a 'Best Start' for all families no matter where they live in Scotland.
"I certainly would not call this the best start. I would call this medieval.
“There is a clear solution. A maternity model that is similar to the Orkney maternity model would allow the majority of our mothers to be able to give birth in Caithness, with only a minority having to endure the journey to Raigmore.
“One can only assume that this dangerous model endures as a result of a lack of care and, frankly, laziness on the part of the Scottish Government.
“The SNP’s obsessions with centralising services and catering for the central belt has led to a severe and dangerous neglect of the Highlands. I will continue to make sure this issue is not ignored and that my constituents are not forgotten.”
Mr Stone told Mr Yousaf: "I am writing to express my deep concern regarding the current maternity model in Caithness and demand that the Scottish Government, who have for too long ignored its dangerous realities, acts swiftly to improve it."
The consultant-led maternity unit at Caithness General Hospital was downgraded in 2016 to a midwife-led facility and the vast majority of local women now give birth at Raigmore. Only eight mothers gave birth in the community midwifery unit at the Wick hospital during 2022, about four per cent of the total for Caithness mums.
In October, CHAT wrote to the First Minister calling for “island status” because the county can be cut off in serious weather when roads are closed.
CHAT chairman Ron Gunn said at the time: “We said many years ago there’s only two roads into the county and if the main A9 gets blocked it’s a long way round. So if the road gets blocked we are virtually an island then – we can’t get anything in and out.
“And with the problems with the weather you’re limited to how you could possibly move an expectant mother – it’s not ideal for the helicopter either.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Safe maternity care as close to home as practicable is vital. The Scottish Government recognises the concerns that extreme weather events like Storm Babet can bring, and the wider challenges facing remote and rural health boards.
"We are providing £5 million of capital investment to upgrade maternity services in Raigmore, and work is ongoing to ensure services are developed in a flexible and sustainable way recognising local population needs and geographic challenges.
“NHS Highland is working closely with local people and campaign groups to develop safe and sustainable services that best meet the needs of local people, including maternity services.
“The Scottish Government will respond to the letter from Jamie Stone in due course.”
Full text of Jamie Stone's letter to First Minister Humza Yousaf
Dear First Minister,
I am writing to express my deep concern regarding the current maternity model in Caithness and demand that the Scottish Government, who have for too long ignored its dangerous realities, acts swiftly to improve it.
Storm Babet inflicted a great deal of damage on Scotland. Crucially, the main arterial road to Raigmore from Caithness has been blocked on numerous occasions because of extreme weather. When this happens, the Caithness maternity unit finds itself landlocked. This is not only the case in extreme weather – accidents in the past have also had the same consequences, preventing use of the road and leaving those in Caithness stranded.
This is only getting worse. Winter conditions are on the horizon and air ambulance assistance is often not available to labouring women due to fog or weather conditions. To make matters worse, there are many areas of this route that have no phone signals, so a call for help cannot be made.
This dangerous journey is most often undertaken in a private car or on unreliable public transport. This can take over four hours!
One can only imagine the fear and terror that heavily pregnant mums experience having to face this journey while in labour – pregnant mums who have no choice due to a centralised maternity model which forces them to travel to Raigmore over 100 miles away on this dangerous road. This is perilous and, quite frankly, archaic.
Our Caithness communities face extreme anxiety and worry when thinking about those who have to endure the risks associated with travelling to Raigmore. On what should be a joyous occasion, so many parents are made to feel scared and vulnerable.
I am ashamed and saddened by the little-to-no attention that has been paid by NHS Highland to the risks for anxious, labouring mums.
This is a recipe for tragedy under the watch of a Scottish Government, who have promised a Best Start for all mothers, children and families no matter where they live in Scotland. Would you call this the "best start"?
A maternity model that is similar to the Orkney maternity model would allow the majority of our mothers to be able to give birth in Caithness, with only a minority having to endure the journey to Raigmore. I fail to understand why the Scottish Government has not already stepped in to reform this harrowing situation.
This really is a matter of life and death and I will not stop calling for change. I look forward to your response on the matter.
Jamie Stone MP