Hospital campaigners and a leading trade union are calling for the immediate end of all closure and downgrade plans at two NHS major acute hospitals in south west London and Surrey.
The Keep Our St Helier Hospital (KOSHH) campaign and GMB Union are demanding that NHS Surrey Downs, Sutton, and Merton Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) stop all plans to close A&E and Intensive Care Units at St Helier and Epsom hospitals.
The IHT consultation ended on April 1, with public meetings replaced by a social media campaign in the final two weeks due to distancing measures. GMB has since written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock urging the government to intervene immediately and asking why the cuts are going ahead during the pandemic.
KOSHH campaigner Sandra Ash said: “How dare they consider closing more hospitals, downgrading more services and cutting more beds when the pandemic has highlighted how badly prepared we are for normal purposes let alone a national health emergency?
“The NHS Trust will spend millions closing our acute facilities and building a smaller unit at the Royal Marsden in Surrey – why not invest in the hospitals we have and keep them in the heart of the communities and the 700,000 people they were built to serve?”
Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust’s chief executive responded, saying intensive care facilities will be dramatically improved by the £500 million investment programme.
The proposals are part of the Government’s Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP), a national cost cutting drive across England’s 44 STPs, leading to the further reduction of medical staff, hospital services, and beds.
Mrs Ash said: “The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has been raising serious concerns for years, saying NHS cuts would cause catastrophic consequences, and now here we are with British doctors forced to make impossible choices about who they treat and who they let die due to a lack of critical care provision.”
She said the CCGs’ preferred option would result in both hospitals losing their A&E, intensive care, emergency surgery and medicine, maternity, paediatric, inpatient, coronary care, and cancer care services.
“Replacing these with Urgent Treatment Centres means they will be reduced to virtual nursing homes with a GP or nurse-run urgent care centre only fit for bee stings, scratches and minor breaks,” she said.
Campaigners said the IHT plans could lead to the loss of up to 200 hospital beds, leaving just 1.1 beds per 100,000 people – well below the national average of 2.6, which will increase pressure on other south west London hospitals already unable to meet their targets.
Epsom and St Helier Hospitals NHS Trust chief executive Daniel Elkeles said in a statement: “Our current buildings don’t have enough single rooms and we don’t have enough ICU beds, and so patients are ‘cohorted’ together when in many other hospitals they can be looked after in single rooms, which significantly reduces the chances of spreading the infection in the hospital.
“Before this outbreak, we were already planning to increase our ITU bed by 15-25% and single rooms to 50% in the new Specialist Emergency Hospital.
“Our staff, who were already working very ‘lean’ rotas to cover both sites safely 24/7, are now working huge numbers of extra hours. It would be so much better for them to provide the best standards of care if all our sickest patients were on one site. That is why 268 of 274, 98%, of our senior medical staff have signed a letter supporting the CCGs’ proposals.
“I urge these campaigners to stop their campaign and start supporting our clinicians.”
GMB Union regional organiser Helen O’Connor, an ex-nurse of 28 years, said it was the worst time imaginable to be making structural changes that will cause upheaval to the NHS workforce.
She said: “At a time when the nation is facing its worst crisis since the Second World War, the government wants to downgrade major acute hospitals, reduce the number of hospital beds, reduce the number of consultant doctors, and increase journey times making it harder for people to get to hospital – it goes absolutely against the public interest.
“Frontline staff are being cut to the bone, the money is going into the wrong place and as a union we want to see resources being invested into all staff on the ground.
“All focus must be on the coronavirus response, on getting the health and safety right by providing PPE to protect our members, and anything outside of that needs to stop immediately.”
NHS data shows the UK has just under 150,000 hospital beds, or 2.6 per 100,000 people, which is far behind Japan’s 13, Germany’s 8, France’s 6 and China’s 4.3. These figures include 4,000 critical care beds, 6.6 for every 100,000 people compared to Germany’s 29, meaning the UK has some of the lowest rates in Europe.
KOSHH, GMB and the UK’s largest union, Unison, have firmly rejected the proposals.
More than 20,000 people have signed the KOSHH petition to retain all acute services at St Helier Hospital and Epsom Hospital.
Feature image credit: Malcolm T Walls.