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Service To Blind People In Doubt As Sight Action Cannot Get Sufficient Funds From NHS Highland

29th January 2020

Funding cuts will take toll on support for visually impaired children and adults in the Highlands and Islands.

THOUSANDS of vulnerable people will be failed if NHS Highland refuses to properly fund a rehabilitation service for adults and children with blindness and impaired vision in the Highlands and the Western Isles.

The grim prediction came last night from a charity called Sight Action whose team of rehabilitation officers have been delivering support to more than 2700 blind and low sighted people since 2008 under contract to the health board.
Sight Action Executive Manager Gillian Mitchell said it will not be bidding to renew its contract next month because the health board is unwilling to adequately meet service funding needs.

She believes the health board's intention is to take the service in-house and says this move would be fraught with danger.

"The next thing we're going to hear is blind folk walking out in front of buses, or not leaving the house at all.," she said.

"These people, especially when they reach they stage of having to use the long cane, need specialist help. An Occupational Therapy support worker is not going to be able to do the same level of assessment as one of our fully-trained rehabilitation officers, all of whom hold academic degrees in low vision and blindness. These people need a qualified rehabilitation officer to teach them mobility, to teach them independent living skills. We are deeply concerned about this because we know they're endangering themselves if they don't get this proper help."

Sight Action have been delivering their statutory rehab and support services to blind and visually impaired people for more than 11 years through a service level agreement with NHS Highland. Mrs Mitchell said its quarterly report showed it had "once again" fulfilled its service level agreement with more than 90 per cent client satisfaction.

Mrs Mitchell said efforts to persuade NHS Highland a significant uplift in funding was needed to continue running the service have so far proved fruitless. She said there has not been an uplift in funding in 10 years.

She said: "NHSH refused to contemplate extra funding to enable us to continue beyond March 2020. As a concession we were told we could instead make cuts in our service. We said we would consider this, but how do you choose which clients, or part of the service to ‘demote'? Remote and rural? The elderly? Children? Babies? We could not in all conscience make such a decision.

"We therefore wrote to NHS Highland at the end of the year to inform them that we could not continue the contract beyond 31st March. Next step is to negotiate the hand-over of the contract back to NHS Highland. We fear for what may happen to sensory services in the Highlands. We do not have any faith that the current NHS management have any depth of knowledge of the input and support needed by those with serious visual impairment. They do not seem to appreciate the importance of properly qualified rehabilitation officers, of the need to professionally assess living conditions in order to choose the most appropriate aids and equipment, or the amount of input necessary to support a family with a baby or young child. We have a huge number - over a hundred and eighty - feedback forms from our service users which show their appreciation of our service. Some would break your heart.

She said the extra funds were crucial to keep the service afloat.

"Increased annual costs have meant, even with service redesign and staffing cuts, we are running over budget already," she said.

"We have had pay increases for staff following the local authority settlement as well as the general increase of running costs. We really have done all we can to cut costs, including not replacing our chief executive when he retired. Our team is down from six to three rehabilitation officers while the number of clients we work with has more than doubled from 1100 to 2700. The bottom line is without any uplift in funding we will be unable to continue to work in that model and we are really worried about what will happen after that to all those people we support. We feel we have no option but to voice our concerns publicly."

NHS Highland is starting with a "we must save money" attitude as opposed to let's look at what's best for our clients' attitude. They may save money for the first year but after that, with all the trips and falls and hip replacements, and all the burns and scalds people are going to be inflicting upon themselves, they won't be saving anything."

Highlands & Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who is supporting the group, said: "It is shocking that NHS Highland is treating organisations which provide a statutory service in such an appalling way. This has put these services and their local providers in jeopardy and it will have a huge impact on the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people in Highlands and Islands. I would urge NHS Highland to take another look at its funding plan immediately. I have raised this issue with the Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman and I am in close dialogue with NHS Highland. I will be keeping this high on my agenda."

Sight Action is located in at Sensory Centres in Thurso and Wick in Caithness and has centres in Inverness and Stornoway. Previously the Sensory centres were part of Caithness Deaf Care before they amalgamated.

In Caithness alone there are 12 children and 252 adults either blind or are sight impaired currently on the listings of Sight Action.

Sight Action web site -


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Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, has tabled a motion for debate in the Scottish Parliament in a bid to save a local charity, Sight Action, as NHS Highland make funding cuts and re-design services for the blind and visually impaired.   It was indicated to Mrs Grant at the end of last year that Sight Action's valuable services to almost 3,000 blind or visually impaired adults and children will no longer continue past the 31st March 2020.  

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