“Lost opportunity” for hospital beds review

Date: Friday 24th March 2017

A BID to get Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to review planned bed closures at Alston hospital was defeated this week in a controversial 4-3 vote.

The choice facing councillors on Cumbria’s health scrutiny committee was to refer the beds closure decision to the Government’s most senior health official or allow it to stand untouched.

Crucially, four committee members — three Labour councillors and a Conservative — left before the crunch vote. They had gone home after the meeting dragged on for nearly eight hours — around three hours longer than timetabled.

Committee chairman Neil Hughes (Lib Dem, Eden Lakes) backed the proposal to refer the bed closures to the cabinet minister but, with empty chairs around the committee table, it failed to secure the required show of hands. The committee — including Labour party councillors from the west coast and Carlisle — voted instead to refer to Mr. Hunt the decision about maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital, Whitehaven.

Few believed Mr. Hunt’s involvement would reverse the bed closures but campaigners are desperate to keep England’s most remote community hospital high up on his agenda.

Mary Robinson, an independent councillor who represents Alston and East Fellside, said it was a lost opportunity. She attended as an observer and was unhappy that tribal Cumbrian politics appeared to come into play. “I was extremely disappointed with the vote. Alston has been sold short,” said Mrs. Robinson.

“All that will happen is they will have all these talks about what replaces beds and then decide they can’t afford them after all. All these people involved will then wander off with their big pensions and Alston will be left high and dry.”

Wednesday’s meeting at county council headquarters was viewed by campaigners as a last chance for local councillors to throw a spanner in the works of the Success Regime process.

Bed closures at Alston, Maryport and Wigton hospitals were controversially backed earlier this month at a meeting in Workington of the governing body of the NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group. But it ruled beds cannot disappear until extensive talks have taken place between communities and health bosses over what replaces them. Concerns remain that bed closures have been ratified when what replaces them has not been agreed or costed. There are fears the three communities will all end up competing against each other with rival plans costing millions.

The proposal for ministerial intervention at Alston was tabled by Penrith-based committee member Virginia Taylor, who leads the Liberal Democrats on Eden District Council.

“There’s an inescapable impression that what’s happening at Alston is not as important as what’s happening with maternity services on the west coast of Cumbria,” she told the meeting.

“The proposal to refer this to the health secretary is made on the grounds that this decision is not in the best interests of the health of Alston.”

Her proposal initially won favour among the committee with eight votes in favour and one abstention. But the process then involved committee members going into private “mediation” with health bosses to see if their concerns could be allayed. Health bosses attending on Wednesday included acute hospitals chief Stephen Eames, Stephen Childs, of the Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group and representatives from the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Ms Taylor told the Herald that she had received assurances from health officials that they are committed to solving Alston’s problems.

“They talk the talk, now it’s a question of do they walk the walk?” she said. “The experts felt that if this did go down to the Secretary of State that would put a brake on the negotiations which are taking place. The feeling was that would undermine the ongoing process.”

Alice Bondi, for the Alston Moor Health Campaign, said: “On the contrary, we believe the decision not to refer puts those plans at risk.”

Malcolm Forster, a leading member of the public on the Alston Moor Health Alliance, has worked on the alternative health care model for the moor.

Mr. Forster said he was “disappointed” but said there would be further chances to involve Mr. Hunt in what was happening. He welcomed the “positive engagement” by the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and local MP Rory Stewart, in discussions about the alternative to beds.

Dr. John Howarth, of the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, told the meeting the community hospital bed model at Alston is not viable.

“We recruited two nurses who sadly have now left and we’re heading for a real crisis in recruitment at Alston,” said Dr. Howarth.

“Nurses have to live and work in the town because travelling in to work is very difficult and that makes for a very fragile model. What we need to do is take the opportunity the clinical commissioning group has given us to keep the door open on these alternative models of care.”

Representatives from Alston Moor Labour Party filled out the public gallery at the meeting. One of their banners read: “20 miles over a 1,900ft pass is too far to go for healthcare.”