The candidates for first minister agreed that the mothers’ safety was their top priority but were silent about accelerating changes at Dr Gray’s.
Speaking at a debate hosted by sister newspaper Inverness Courier in the north of Scotland, Girl Guides said maternity services in Moray, as well as in Caithness, were not good enough.
Despite recent funding announcements of £6.6m to restore a consultant-led maternity service at Dr Gray’s by 2026, no fundamental changes to care will happen in 2023 or 2024.
Health Minister Hamza Yusuf said that if he becomes a first minister, he will focus on improving the underlying factors that prevent consultants from working in rural areas.
He said: “First and foremost, in any decision concerning Caithness and about Dr Gray, the woman and the fetuses are our priority.
“If we could have a counselor-led service tomorrow, there would be no one in government to deny it.
So what stops the workforce?
“First, we know there are housing issues, for example.
There are issues related to education.
“One of the plans I have, for example, is to set aside £25m in order to be able to buy empty properties to put them back into social housing for key workers.
“If we deal with this issue it helps us recruit.
“We’ll do whatever is in our gift to try and get the workforce out there.”
Ash Regan agreed that safety should be her top priority and drew on her personal experience.
She also said she would “look into” improving maternity services but said nothing about possible policies.
She said: “Hamza is right in the sense that safety is really important for the mother and the child.
“I have twins myself and was not allowed to go to a midwife-led unit because that was considered too risky.
“So they wanted me to go to another hospital far away.
“For some people, it will probably never be possible to give birth so close to home.
“But if I were first minister, I would look at this and see what I could do, but I can’t tell you exactly what I would do now.”
Kate Forbes said improving maternity service would require politicians to “fundamentally rethink how the NHS works”.
It also stressed the measures taken to train and retain consultants in rural areas.
She said: “I can’t think of another colleague who can match Hamza in terms of his empathy and willingness to solve problems, but when it comes to this particular issue I think it requires us to fundamentally rethink how the NHS works.
“It basically requires us to ensure that our front line is empowered.
“Because they are ultimately the people who will enable these women not to have to travel.
“Students who come from Scotland and study medicine in Scotland are more likely to stay in Scotland.
“We also know that students from rural areas who study in Scotland are more likely to return to rural areas.
“So when we talk about consultants, there is more to do in terms of the path to studying locally.
“It’s about getting more people willing to commit to these communities.
“Like in the good old days when you had local people and local doctors and nurses who were totally committed to their local area.”
The candidates’ remarks followed fresh comments from the Keep MUM campaign group, which said Murray’s birth was “neither finished nor dusted” in reaction to the news that only eight babies were born at Dr. Gray’s in January.
Department spokeswoman Katie Watson described transporting expectant mothers to Aberdeen during the late stages of labour as “barbaric” and potentially having “tremendous effects on mental and physical health”.
She also said that politicians should make changes before the 2025 and 2026 schedule.
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