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coronavirus

NHSO chief’s lockdown travel costs revealed

NHSO chief executive designate Iain Stewart.

The Orcadian can reveal that NHS Orkney’s chief executive designate has racked up nearly £2,000 in travel costs between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland, and over £2,500 in accommodation bills, since taking up his role on March 1.

This is according to the response received to a Freedom of Information request (FOI) submitted to NHS Orkney by the newspaper.

Iain Stewart has come under fire in recent weeks, after it was confirmed that he had been travelling to his home in the Black Isle “on occasion” during the coronavirus lockdown. It has since emerged that Mr Stewart also journeyed as far as Glasgow while restrictions were in place — for “personal reasons.”

Though NHS Orkney has stood by its new chief executive’s decision to travel, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur has, this week, called on Mr Stewart to resign or “be removed.” Though he recently wrote an “open letter to the people of Orkney” apologising for any offence caused by his decision to travel, Mr Stewart has maintained that he was within his rights to do so. The letter did not mention any trips to Glasgow.

The FOI response from NHS Orkney, which was sent after The Orcadian went to press this week, indicates that Mr Stewart was off-island on 26 of his first 77 days with the health authority. Of these 26 days, 15 fell after the lockdown came into force on March 23.

Eight return trips, from Orkney to the Scottish Mainland, plus Mr Stewart’s initial journey to begin work in Orkney, have cost NHSO a total of £1,815.96. This includes a return trip to the Highlands every week in March, two long weekends south in April, and a further two in May. Five of these return trips were taken inside lockdown. 

This total does not include expenses incurred on a trip between the Black Isle and Edinburgh for a meeting of NHS Scotland chief executives in early March (totalling £105.80), nor a £12 remuneration for parking fees at Kirkwall Airport. Indeed, it is stated that the figure of £1,815.96 accounts for expenses incurred by NHS Orkney to the travel companies — indicating that these trips were booked and paid for by the health authority on Mr Stewart’s behalf, rather than the chief executive designate purchasing the travel himself before claiming the money back. £676.30 of this is attributable to travel undertaken during the lockdown. 

According to the FOI response, the most recent journey Mr Stewart made on the public purse was  a ferry trip from Scrabster to Stromness on Sunday, May 17.

It was in an official meeting with the press on Monday, May 18, that the chief executive confirmed he had been making trips to his family home in the Highlands during the lockdown. This was communicated to the public shortly after, prompting intense criticism from a large proportion of the Orkney community, many of whom felt that Mr Stewart — one of the key figures leading the county’s fight against coronavirus — was setting an unfair “double standard.”

All the while, NHS Orkney has been forking out a further £924.26 per month on a Kirkwall property which is being rented for the use of Mr Stewart.

Mr Stewart’s travel arrangements are one of a number issues which have sparked public criticism of NHS Orkney during the coronavirus crisis. Its outgoing chief executive, Gerry O’Brien, has apologised this week for the way in which the health authority has communicated with the public during the pandemic. This came in a breakthrough meeting with the press on Tuesday, in which Mr O’Brien confirmed that Mr Stewart had made a trip to Glasgow during the lockdown — but denied suggestions that his successor had been returning home on a weekly basis.

Asked in the FOI to indicate the number of hours the chief executive designate has worked within the actual building at The Balfour since March 23, NHS Orkney responded: “Mr Stewart is not required to maintain a detailed account of his hours as he is expected to work

any and all hours required. The location of where hours worked is not recorded.”

The Orcadian also requested details on any discussions or decisions taken by NHS Orkney management relating to Mr Stewart’s suitability to work at home, or his ability to travel, during the lockdown.

The FOI response stated: “No record exists of specific times and dates in relation to discussions referred to above.

“As a senior executive of NHS Orkney, Mr Stewart would be expected to exercise his own judgement as to what specific duties could be undertaken at home and what specific duties required his presence in Orkney. Mr Stewart also exercised his judgement in relation to compliance with Scottish Government guidelines as an essential worker and his key role in the ongoing management of the pandemic in Orkney.”

Responding today, Wednesday, to a call by Liam McArthur MSP for Mr Stewart to resign, an NHS Orkney spokeswoman said: “As previously noted, some degree of travel on and off island is critical to our proper functioning as an island board. 

“NHS Orkney has confirmed that our chief executive designate has travelled to Glasgow from his home in the Black Isle. Mr Stewart’s reasons for travelling were personal, and we understand were within the Scottish Government lockdown rules at the time.”

More on NHS Orkney’s pledge to improve communications with the public in this Thursday’s The Orcadian.

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