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The NHS in the Western Isles have stepped in to rescue the islands from the consequences of UHI's decision to first scale back and then close An Cotan Childcare centre in Stornoway. 

Western Isles NHS Board today (Wednesday) agreed to become an alternative provider for An Cotan Childcare Centre, whilst recognising the risks that are associated with this decision. 

At the Board meeting today, members had a significant discussion on the risks and benefits of becoming an alternative provider of An Cotan Childcare Centre, and the decision to proceed is based on mitigating a number of risks, including meeting Care Commission registration requirements, establishing contractual agreements with the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in terms of premises, and securing a registered manager.  

The need to explore a salary sacrifice scheme for NHS staff using the nursery was also agreed. 

Members discussed in detail the impact that closure of the nursery would have on NHS staff, and the risk that health staff may not be able to fulfil their employment contracts as a result of a lack of childcare. They also discussed the wider risks to the sustainability of the Western Isles should An Cotan Childcare Centre close and the impact on recruitment to the islands if there was an additional unmet need for childcare. 

Discussions on the risks of becoming an alternative provider included the risk of being able to ensure the nursery is able to break-even and also the ability to recruit staff to the nursery.

Members were also concerned that nursery fees should remain affordable for those using the nursery, though there was a recognition that there would need to be an increase in fees to help avoid an unsustainable overspend.  

Members overwhelmingly voted in favour of becoming an alternative provider, but agreed that there is a need to look at short, medium and long term plans and to consider wider local childcare issues as a matter of urgency with Community Planning Partners. 

Western Isles Health Board Chair, Gillian McCannon, said: “This was not an easy decision for the Board today.

"However, in terms of the sustainability of the Western Isles as a whole and our ability as a health and social care system to be able to recruit and retain staff, there really was no other option than to become an alternative provider, as a lack of intervention would result in imminent closure of the facility.

"There is a clear unmet need for childcare in the Lewis and Harris area and the loss of a nursery such as An Cotan would have such a detrimental impact that we must do all we can to ensure it continues to be available to the population.  

“Our senior teams now have a great deal of work to take forward to ensure all the requirements are in place to ensure that we can take over the nursery as quickly and as smoothly as possible. We are well aware that running a childcare provision is a complicated business, and not one which is our primary role as an NHS Board. However, we hope to continue to have the support of our partners including Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the University of the Highlands and Islands, to ensure the continuation of An Cotan and then to also consider and try to address the wider issue of childcare needs across the Western Isles.” 

Chief Executive, Gordon Jamieson, said: “The sustainable provision of accessible nursery childcare provision is mission critical to our ability to attract, recruit and retain Health and Social Care staff. Loss of the current An Cotan provision would have an immediate and longer term impact on our ability to recruit and retain staff to the Western Isles and immediately on service and sustainability.  

“It is for these reasons that the Board has considered that, despite the clear risks involved, it is the right thing to do for our staff, our services and our population.”  

An Cotan has been operated by UHI Outer Hebrides for over 20 years, but they announced in March their intention to consult on the centre’s closure as a result of staff recruitment issues and financial challenges. An Cotan is one of only two settings in Lewis which provide care for children under the age of three, with many key workers reliant on it for the childcare which allows them to go to work.

Since December, the islands’ SNP MSP Alasdair Allan has been advocating on behalf of parents and staff regarding the need for this childcare provision to continue, as its closure would have had a severe impact across the local community, and could have pushed young families to move away to the mainland.

Commenting after today’s announcement, Alasdair Allan said: “I am grateful to the health board for all of their efforts in recent months investigating the feasibility of taking over this childcare service, which is so vital for a large number of local NHS and other workers. UHI, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and NHS Western Isles have been working closely with one another to find a solution, and it will be a great relief to local parents that this provision will be able to continue.

“According to the NHS’s report, it is likely that fees will have to be raised to be more in line with the national average, and staffing recruitment could still pose a challenge. However, wages will be significantly increased, which should help attract and retain qualified staff for this setting.”