Plans to close A&E and maternity units will drive up waiting times and put patients in danger
In the run up to the General Election, every few weeks Left Foot Forward will take a look back at the coalition’s record on a specific policy area. This week we focus on the NHS, and each day we will feature a piece that looks back at the impact of coalition policies on the health service over the past five years. The following is from Ruby Stockham, staff writer at Left Foot Forward.
the High Court ruled in October 2013 that Jeremy Hunt did not have the power to implement cuts at Lewisham Hospital, there was a brief sense of victory among the 20,000 strong campaign group who had worked so hard to save the hospital.
The South London Health Care Trust (SLHCT) had run up massive bills as the result of an expensive PFI initiative and the Trust’s special administrator Matthew Kershaw – chosen by Conservative Health minister Andrew Lansley – recommended closing the A&E department of Lewisham Hospital.
The professed reason for this was that it would send patients to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital which was heavily indebted, thus increasing its income.
This was despite the fact that Lewisham Hospital was nothing to do with the SLHCT and had been ranked in the top forty hospitals in the country for four years running.
The local authority and the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign brought a legal challenge against the secretary of state, which he lost.
But in an act of extraordinary contempt for the needs and opinions of local communities, Jeremy Hunt responded by changing the law. He introduced Clause 119 to the Care Bill, which gave him new and extended powers to close local NHS services.
The clause removed the legal protection that saved Lewisham Hospital, and that saved the 750,000 people living in the borough from being left without an A&E.
The secretary of state now has the power to impose decisions that are opposed by a majority of doctors, and with as little as 40 days notice.
Since coming to power, the coalition government has closed or downgraded more than 30 NHS maternity and A&E units.
In West London alone there are several plans for further closures. There are currently plans to sell off 55 per cent of the site currently belonging to Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, and reduce its space by more than 75 per cent. The plan is to replace it with a GP-led ’emergency centre’ by 2020.
This is despite a CQC report in December praising the emergency department at the hospital, leading to speculation that part of the reason for selling off Charing Cross is that it sits on highly desirable land. In November Dr Mark Spencer, the clinical lead of the programme planning the centralisation of west London emergency departments, told the Evening Standard about proposals to turn the buildings into flats:
“We’ve had people come and say: ‘Why knock it down? We could convert it.’ If you go to the top floor and have a view across London, it’s quite nice.”
In September the A&E units at Central Middlesex and Hammersmith Hospitals were closed; as a result, west London patients were hit with the longest A&E waits in the country. Over two weeks, 1,455 patients waited for more than four hours to be seen at Northwick Park and Ealing hospitals.
Rising A&E waiting times have been well documented in recent weeks but are often attributed to other factors such as a lack of staff, a decrease in the of home care visits, and the new 111 helpline which is staffed by untrained volunteers. In the case of west London, it is clear that local closures have also had a significant impact.
Downsizing Charing Cross would also mean losing 336 of 360 inpatient beds, the world-class stroke unit and all emergency consultant services.
Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter says of the plans:
“We have a world class hospital reported to be converted to luxury flats for the very wealthy while London is in the middle of a housing crisis. This only adds insult to injury to my constituents who already face waiting times of over 4 hours in A&E. David Cameron must get a grip and act now.”
“The NHS in west London is in crisis as a result of the Government’s closure program. It is no surprise to my constituents that health services are struggling. This is a shambolic situation which is a serious threat to the healthcare of over two million Londoners.”
With a tight budget, some hospital closures are inevitable. But there is frequent consensus that the decisions the Health secretary is making about which departments to close are ill-informed and made with minimal consultation.
For example, following the decision to close the maternity unit at Ealing Hospital – a closure which could take place as soon as March – Dr Onkar Sahota stated:
“By agreeing on the timetable for the closure of this unit the Clinical Commissioning Group has ensured that mothers will be left miles from their family and friends during their pregnancy and birth.”
Furthermore, campaigners say the loss of the unit will be disastrous because it will force patients to the unit at Northwick Park Hospital. NP’s maternity unit has a chequered history; in 2005 it was placed in special measures following the deaths of 10 mothers during a three year period, and in August of last year the CQC ruled the unit inadequate.
But because of the clause which he himself inserted into the Care Bill, Jeremy Hunt now has the power to ride roughshod over the opinions of local residents and healthcare professionals.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.