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An unexpected side-effect of changes to the mail-plane services across the UK will be challenging to chemotherapy services which are provided at Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway.

The Board of NHS Western Isles was recently told how the mail plane service will soon be moving to Glasgow from Inverness and how this presents a significant challenge to NHS Western Isles in the timely delivery of chemotherapy medicines.

This change is not expected to take place until June this year, and NHS Western Isles has a team of senior staff working on options, to establish a safe and robust solution.

The boards heard how all chemotherapy requires consultant prescription via chemocare (an electronic system that supports the governance, safety and legal requirements linked to chemotherapy). For chemotherapy, NHS Western Isles mainly functions as part of the NHS Highland chemotherapy network – separate health boards do not have access to others’ chemocare systems.

NHS Western Isles strives to obtain chemotherapy medicines from Pharma pharmaceutical group - as these preparations will tend to have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, certain chemotherapy medicines have a short shelf life, sometimes under 24 hours from when the medicine is prepared.

NHS Highland prepares these chemotherapy products, as it does for Caithness and the Belford hospitals, and Raigmore Hospital itself. Currently these medicines are delivered by the mail plane from Inverness, supporting the delivery of chemotherapy on a Tuesday at Western Isles Hospital. However, from June this air service will cease.  

Options being considered include using commercial flights and the ferry service. These all require scrutiny of safety, cold-chain compliance, and all the legal requirements for transporting cytotoxic drugs.  A change in the delivery time will also require a review of working practices, including staff rotas.

Because all aseptic pharmacy services in Scotland are working at capacity, there is no option of medicines being prepared elsewhere.

It was back in September last year that Royal Mail announced plans to reshape its air distribution network in the latest stage of the complete restructuring of the way mail is moved around the UK.

Royal Mail had been using 39 flights each week night, from 24 airports, to distribute 6.6 per cent of the daily mailbag of 82 million items across the country.

Royal Mail decided to simplify its network. It will use larger jet aircraft to transport more mail – but using under half the number of services each week night, and operating from just 18 airports.

The current network is operated by eight airlines but all services under the new model, which will distribute eight per cent of all mail, are intended to be run by an alliance between Channel Express and Titan Airways.

Back in September, Royal Mail said they would be using a company called  BenAir for Highland and Islands routes. BenAir belongs to the Aviation & Aerospace Division of the Jutlandia Group and employs 75 people in Denmark, Norway, the UK, and France.  They say on LinkedIn that they operate and maintain a growing fleet of 20 aircraft and helicopters that they plan to grow steadily with additional aircraft of current and larger types. 

Paul Bateson, Royal Mail’s Managing Director, Logistics, said: “This new network will improve the efficiency of our air operation, distributing more mail than we currently do by air at a comparable cost to our present system."

Royal Mail will continue its air operations from Aberdeen, Belfast, Benbecula, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Guernsey, Inverness, Kinloss, Isle of Man, Jersey, Kirkwall, Newcastle, Stansted, Stornoway and Sumburgh airports.