Patients in Northumberland facing 'tartan curtain' over healthcare

A "tartan curtain" is blocking access to healthcare services in Scotland, Sir Alan Beith has claimed

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith

Patients in Northumberland are facing a “tartan curtain” which is preventing them from accessing their nearest health facilities, an MP has claimed.

Some people living near the Scottish border are being told their GP can not refer them to see specialists at hospitals in Scotland, Sir Alan Beith, the MP for Berwick, has said, despite the nearest site for many being across the divide.

Sir Alan claims the same is true in reverse, with cases of Scottish patients being told they can not be treated south of the border.

The MP has blamed a disagreement between health bosses on either side of the border over how much they pay each other when treating each other’s patients.

Health bosses in Northumberland and the Scottish Borders have insisted that cross divide referrals are still taking place.

But they have admitted they prefer patients to be treated in their area where possible and also say they are concerned about getting “value for money” for the services provided.

Officials on either side of the border have insisted ambulances are still crossing the divide, although those in Northumberland have said sending vehicles into Scotland renders them unavailable to, and increases waiting times for, county patients.

Liberal Democrat Sir Alan spoke out after a number of constituents just south of the border visiting his surgery tour raised difficulties getting GP referrals to specialists at hospitals in Scotland, in particular Borders General at Melrose.

The site is nearer than the closest English facility with specialist care, Wansbeck General Hospital at Ashington, for people living in north Northumberland.

Sir Alan said: “It is a tartan curtain. For people in Cornhill and Crookham, their nearest hospital is in Scotland but they are being told they have to go to Wansbeck.”

Sir Alan said he has been told of patients north of the border being told they can not access services in England.

The MP claimed a dispute between NHS Borders and NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) over the fees they must pay each other when treating each other’s patients is to blame.

“There seems to be a blockage somewhere in the negotiating process which is allowing it to become much more difficult to cross before anyone has cast a vote in a referendum.

“It is bureaucracy gone mad that the health service is creating obstructions at the border where for years people have been accustomed to crossing the border.”

The Berwick Patient Care Task and Finish Group set up by Northumberland County Council has also questioned how often vehicles from either side were crossing the divide.

Brian Woodcock, 63-year-old vice chairman of Carham Parish Council who lives at Cornhill, gave up farming after breathing problems forced him to undergo a lung transplant. He told how North East ambulances had in the past sought to take him to Wansbeck rather than Melrose, despite all his patient notes being at the latter.

He also told how English patients at his Coldstream GP - just over the border into Scotland - have recently been told they can only now access physiotherapy at Berwick.

Coun Woodcock felt there has been some reduction in cross border co-operation since the Scottish independence debate intensified.

He added: “All we are looking for is best available help locally. It is unfortunate that we are on the edge of areas but there has been cross border co-operation and I would just like to see them look at it again and see if it can be kept going.”


A spokeswoman for Northumberland CCG told The Journal cross border referrals are still happening “where appropriate,” that there is no dispute over any “invoices or payments” and that ambulances are still travelling over the divide.

Dr Graham Syers, joint North locality director, said: “The vision statement of Northumberland CCG is to commission high quality, integrated care in the most efficient and sustainable way, by the most appropriate provider to meet the longer term needs of the people in Northumberland.

“Northumberland CCG is working hard with all providers to ensure that this vision statement is delivered and patients are offered choice as set out in the NHS Constitution.

“A small proportion of healthcare services to Northumberland residents are bought from Scottish providers such as NHS Borders.

“Scottish providers are not governed by the same contractual arrangements as English providers and NHS Northumberland CCG needs assurance that commissioned services are of high quality, locally sensitive and value for money.

“When a patient is referred to a Scottish provider for elective care, different rules apply for the referral and treatment. This can increase the waiting times and Northumberland CCG is working with all providers to ensure this does not adversely affect patient care.

“North East Ambulance Services (NEAS) provide urgent and emergency patient care and transfer across Northumberland. If a patient is taken to Scotland by a NEAS ambulance, this ambulance is unable to take further urgent or emergency calls until back within England. This can adversely affect ambulance waiting times for the patients of Northumberland.

“NHS Northumberland CCG is working with NEAS and NHS Borders to ensure systems are in place to avoid unnecessary delays in treatment. NHS Northumberland CCG is working with providers to ensure care is delivered closer to home.

“NHS Northumberland CCG is working to bring further services to north Northumberland such as ophthalmology to Berwick to reduce travel for the patients within the area.”

Sheena MacDonald, medical director at NHS Borders, said: “We request all referrals for planned care services that are clinically appropriate for Borders residents, to be provided by local services in the Borders.

“In emergency situations, all patients should be taken as quickly as possible to the closest A&E department whether this be Borders General Hospital, Edinburgh or the north of England.

“For non emergency cases NHS Borders encourages all Scottish residents to be referred to a central point in NHS Borders for further assessment and treatment – patients will be referred on to a non Borders health provider if Borders cannot meet their needs or if the patient has exceptional reasons e.g. need for a second opinion that cannot be met locally.

“The Borders has a population in the region of 116,000 and in order to continue to protect and sustain local services in the Borders, residents will continue to be treated within Borders where it is clinically appropriate. NHS Borders remain happy to accept referrals from other health boards or trusts including Lothian and Northumberland.”


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