FEARS continue to grow over finding enough staff to run the new £1.6m health hub planned for the far north.
In a separate development on the controversial project, one community has also called for the retention of its care home which is set to close under the proposals.
The board of NHS Highland has approved plans to develop a new single health and social care hub facility on the north coast, subject to further work to check the viability of the project.
The move follows a three-month consultation with local residents where almost two thirds of the people surveyed supported the board’s preferred option of a dual “residential and nursing care” facility to be built in the Kyle of Tongue area.
In addition, it is planned that the hub will improve the co-ordination of care in the area through the co-location of some healthcare services and staff.
Under the scheme NHS Highland would no longer provide residential care home services at Caladh Sona near Melness and Melvich Community Care Unit.
But during a meeting of the board earlier this year, report authors raised some concerns about staff recruitment and retention and other factors which could affect the hub’s viability – which have again resurfaced this week.
Gill McVicar, the board’s director of operations north and west operational unit, said previously: “We need to have confidence that the Kyle of Tongue area can provide a sustainable workforce.
“There is a lot of concern about the viability of staffing anywhere along that north coast, not just for NHS Highland.
“We have been struggling to staff the two homes on the north coast, but we are moving the two homes into one, so it ought to be achievable.
“But we do not want to build the facility and not be able to staff it. So we need to do more work to gather evidence on the viability of the model.”
Dr Colin Chandler, a researcher with the University of Edinburgh, has been meeting with community groups and representatives to look in more detail at “perceived staffing challenges and ways of improving recruitment and retention”.
But now residents in villages along the north coast have told NHS bosses not to axe the community care home at Melvich – known as Sinclair Court – for the sake of a new state-of-the art facility being built many miles away.
NHS Highland recently met with residents in the Strathy area where a petition containing more than 200 names calling for the retention of the unit at Melvich was handed in.
Janette Mackay, chairwoman of Strathy and Armadale Community Council, said locals made it clear they did not want to lose their own unit.
“We already have a nice, very good day centre which we don’t want to lose for the sake of a day centre 30 miles or so away. That is not the answer,” she said.
“We are not against the one at Tongue, but not at the expense of our own.”
North, West and Central Sutherland councillor Linda Munro – who is also chairwoman of the Sutherland County Committee – said it was “not an option” to keep Melness open because of its outdated facilities, but Melvich could have a role as a “health and wellbeing hub”, although not for residential care.
She also stressed that the new facility at Tongue – destined to open in 2019 – would have day care facilities and would be “far more” than a care and nursing home.
“The NHS will tell you this is not budget driven but we all know it is,” she said.
“There will be one 12 bed, or larger, residential nursing home to replace the two care homes we currently have. Neither Melvich or Melness are nursing care homes and the new build will be.
“Sinclair Court will cease to be a care home, however, it will continue to offer full day care services to users.
“There are ongoing discussions between NHS and stakeholders regarding the type of health and wellbeing hub that will be developed in Sinclair Court for the community’s use.
“There’s a lot of bells and whistles being added to the proposed new care home and that’s great.
“We should be ambitious for our communities. However, staff and residents, along with their families and communities, are growing weary of the endless delays.
“A state-of-the-art conference room etc in the new facility can wait. Let’s get cracking on 24/7 community care that the area needs. It is important we have services in this area that meets the needs of the communities, especially the vulnerable.
“Now after three years in planning the latest delay is a consultation to be conducted by Dr Chandler to ascertain if we can staff a new unit in the Kyle of Tongue area.
“Really? Now at this point NHS are wondering if we can staff a new build?
“It’s bunkum to suggest we can’t find the staff – there are two homes that are closing that employ more than 20 people. NHS Highland have said there will be no compulsory redundancies. Some may be reluctant to travel the distance to Tongue, but there is a pool available.
“I’m meeting with Dr Chandler on July 7 and from what I hear he has a real can-do approach so I’m looking forward to our discussions.
“I have also been surprised and shocked by the proposed changes to out of hours doctor services.
“This is where NHS Highland propose to remove local responsibility for out of hours because our GPs don’t want to be on-call between 5pm and 9am and no on-call cover at weekends.
“NHS are proposing we would be overseen by the Thurso GP on-call – that’s never going to happen and in fact from trials we know it hasn’t. It is no surprise that a GP looking after 27,000 folks in Caithness is not coming out to a house call in north-west Sutherland.
“The Highland NHS Board last November/December decided to take away out of hours cover from Lochinver, Tongue and Armadale GP practices and we would be overseen by Thurso. Well clearly that was never going to work.
“I have, for the last couple of months now, been discussing this with Lorraine Coe NHS District Manager and Michelle Johnston NHS Area Manager and they are keen on working with the community planning partners around the Sutherland Community Partnership Committee to make this work for areas across the NW of Sutherland.
"But they need to get cracking with the new nursing care home build in the Kyle of Tongue first before folks will really invest in other working with NHS Highland."
A spokeswoman for NHS Highland said:"The issue of staffing was raised as part of the consultation and moving to have one home instead of two is part of addressing any staffing challenges in the future.
"In terms of having the home in the Kyle of Tongue area we are reviewing relevant information including understanding the current recruitment profile, travel distances for the workforce and how to enhance recruitment. This is including interviewing staff and other local stakeholders. It won’t delay the process but it will allow us time to address any difficulties identified or raised.
"We have identified a university as a research partner to assist us with this. They will review relevant information including understanding the current recruitment profile, travel distances for the workforce and how to enhance recruitment. Their works will include interviewing staff and other local stakeholders."
Members of NHS Highland recently met in Durness with the steering group overseeing the redesign of services across the north coast.
At the meeting, NHS Highland’s district manager Lorraine Coe explained the process to determine the workforce and costs but highlighted that further work will be required to confirm bed numbers.
Possible sites in the Kyle of Tongue area will be identified and an assessment of technical suitability will take place.
A wider survey and a draft report should be available early in the summer.
Michelle Johnstone, NHS Highland's area manager for North and West said: “I felt it was another helpful meeting with excellent input from community representatives. I think the biggest issue raised was around time-scales and a desire to see things happen more quickly. I am very sympathetic to this but we do have to do things properly."
She added: “We are working closely with the Highland Council, who are providing the £1.5 million of capital monies, to prepare the business case. The current estimate is to start the building by August 2018 and it will take around a year to complete. Obviously if we can start the work earlier then we will.
“I think the important next step is to secure a suitable site and we will work with local people to come to a consensus on that.”