Councillors targeted over A&E closure

The A&E Department at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.
The A&E Department at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.
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FURIOUS councillors say their lives are being made hell after a leaflet was put out across Hartlepool accusing them of not doing enough to save the town hospital’s A&E department.

Eight have been singled out and some say they are now receiving abusive telephone calls and letters from the public.

One councillor has told the Mail how his terrified wife was verbally abused during a school run with their young daughter.

It comes after 12,000 leaflets were dished out accusing them of collaborating with health officials rather than fighting to save the A&E department at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.

The matter has been brought to the attention of Hartlepool Borough Council’s chief solicitor.

The leaflet accuses eight members of the council’s health scrutiny forum of “collaborating” with health officials to “achieve” the closure of the A&E department at the Holdforth Road site.

Conservative Group leader Ray Wells, said he has received angry letters and phone calls and that his wife was verbally abused while dropping his daughter off at school.

The leaflet, which has been supported by various readers of an internet forum website, is entitled Who Speaks For Us?

The councillors, from different political parties, say they have been unfairly labelled “traitors” and that the majority of them had no involvement in closing the A&E department as they only recently joined the committee.

They have also stressed that their role is to scrutinise decisions and not to take them although the leaflet identifies the councillors as “currently collaborating.”

Of the eight pictured, Labour councillors Kaylee Sirs, Jean Robinson and Linda Shields were only elected as councillors in May and were voted in as committee members alongside Conservative group leader Ray Wells and Liberal Democrat leader Arthur Preece that same month.

Labour councillors Stephen Akers-Belcher, Chris Simmons and Sheila Griffin were on the committee last year when it was first announced that the A&E department could close.

Independent councillor Geoff Lilley is the only member of the forum not to appear on the leaflet.

Coun Wells said: “Since the distribution of this literature I have been inundated by concerned members of the public, whose reactions range from considered questions to irate comments, and understandably so.

“Many of them have accepted my word that I have never voted to close Hartlepool’s A&E.

“But the final straw came when my wife was accosted by a member of the public as she dropped my five-year-old daughter off at school, asking why has your husband voted to close the A&E.

“This is unacceptable.

“But I stress that I do not blame the public, who I feel have been misled.”

The forum accepts it has the power to write to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley but feel it would be a futile exercise.

Labour councillor Stephen Akers-Belcher, who chairs the forum, said: “Technically we could write to the Secretary of State for Health but I think he would uphold the report of the independent review due to the wealth of information and evidence.”

A Hartlepool Borough Council spokesman said: “The suggestion that members of the council’s health scrutiny forum have collaborated to close the accident and emergency unit at the University Hospital of Hartlepool is totally without foundation.

“Clearly, any decision to close A&E rests with North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

“An independent review of the decision was led by the North East Strategic Health Authority and the review concluded that primarily for safety and training reasons, the A&E unit should close.

“We can confirm that the distribution of this leaflet has been brought to the attention of the council’s chief solicitor.”

The A&E department was declared unfit for purpose after an independent review by health professionals, academics and councillors from the health scrutiny forum back in March.

The changes are part of the Momentum: Pathways to Healthcare programme being led by North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

The A&E department will shut on Tuesday, August 2.

Patients in need of emergency attention will be dealt with at the £20m One Life Hartlepool, in Park Road.

A joint statement issued by North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Hartlepool said they were implementing the recommendations of the independent review.

The spokeswoman added: “A steering group, chaired by the chair of the Hartlepool health scrutiny committee, has been overseeing the changes to urgent and emergency care in Hartlepool and has to date been satisfied with the arrangements which are being put into place on August 2.

“Our main concern is maintaining patient safety and bringing in these changes will ensure we have a safe service which is sustainable for the future.”

Councillor defends action

A COUNCILLOR who part funded the leaflet has defended his involvement in the campaign.

Independent councillor Geoff Lilley maintains that the current forum members – including those that joined in May -– still have it in their power to challenge the closure of the A&E department.

He has called on them to write to the Health Secretary expressing their concerns.

Coun Lilley, who represents the Greatham ward, is not pictured on the leaflet because he voted against accepting to receive the report of the review panel in March.

Coun Lilley, who confirmed that he contributed £50 towards the printing cost, said: “The current members have a responsibility and they have it in their power to do something about it and act now.

“It is vitally important that we have a hospital-based A&E department.

“The closure will have a serious impact for everybody in town and east Durham.

“This is not the time to sit on your hands.

“If councillors listened more then perhaps we would have a more realistic interpretation of what the people of Hartlepool want.”

Coun Lilley added that he wasn’t worried by any threat of legal action.

He added: “I am one of the people who has contributed to its production.

“If people think there is a case to bring action then I welcome that.”

Coun Lilley (pictured below) added: “I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health last year, as did many people in Hartlepool, expressing my concerns when the closure was first mooted.

“The reply that came back was that this is a local matter as far as he was concerned.

“That was me writing as an individual.

“If the health scrutiny forum wrote, saying that on reflection these changes were going to be detrimental to the health services in Hartlepool then that would have a more significant impact.”

Town resident Dave Pascoe, 66, of Dunbar Road, is another of those that helped fund and distribute the leaflet.

He said: “This is an issue that affects everybody in town. It is a matter of life and death.

“The views of the 33,000 people that signed the Save Our Hospital petition cannot be ignored.”