The Town Hall was packed on Monday night for a meeting to discuss the future of hospital services.
The fact that people were prepared to come out on a cold and dark November evening indicated the understandable strength of feeling about the matter.
Leaders and representatives of the NHS Trust, as well as clinicians, provided their viewpoint and members of the public asked questions.
Given the raw emotion, even anger in the room, it was remarkably courteous and respectful, testimony to the people of Hartlepool.
Several things struck me from the meeting. The first is probably the most important – that the nature of the discussion with the Trust and members of the public was, frankly, not about consultation but about information.
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My understanding of this meeting and others taking place over the next couple of weeks and months was that it was an opportunity for the Trust to explain the pause in the development work on the Wynyard hospital proposal and work with the public to determine what shape hospital services should therefore be, in the light of that significant decision.
However, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.
The public were told that there was no going back and that services would not be returned.
This seems very wrong.
If Wynyard is not going ahead – and everybody has to be very up front and realistic about this – North Tees cannot be the centralised site for hospital services in our area.
Time and time again in the meeting we heard from people who said that they were unable to use the health service based at North Tees because they couldn’t afford the £12 or so that a taxi would cost.
Car parking was also mentioned repeatedly.
It’s right that patient outcomes are given priority, it is absolutely correct that clinical safety should be of paramount concern, but for heaven’s sake accessibility and the simple ability of people to be able to use the services on offer has to be a key consideration too. North Tees is inaccessible for people even with cars.
For people relying on public transport or taxis, it is even worse.
Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, wrote these words in the 1940s which are still relevant and moving today: ‘The collective principle asserts that...no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’
People in Hartlepool may hesitate about going to North Tees because they can’t afford the journey.
I don’t think the Trust realise what an important consideration that is, and should do something about it by returning services.
Another thing which struck me was the belief by Trust management that a new hospital was still the goal.
As I said, I think people have to be realistic about this.
The Trust cannot devote any more time or money to this issue.
It is like a house sale falling through and you still wanting to buy the curtains and furniture for that planned new house. It’s a waste of time.
Primary effort should now be given to ensuring that services are returned.
Centralisation of services was much talked about at the meeting.
I fully respect clinical opinion. There is no way I am going to challenge the medical knowledge and expertise of a professional.
However, there is a balance to be struck here – centralisation of services needs to be countered with the basic ability of people to access those services.
The NHS around the country has shown that centralisation actually clogs up the system, as more patients are being seen by fewer numbers of staff, while ambulances are queuing up in A&Es because there is not the scope to admit patients. Centralisation of services could very well mean that in 20 years or so the North East only has two hospitals: James Cook and the RVI. That might be acceptable on paper, but it fails to accept that people need to access and use these services.
I do hope that the Trust listens to public opinion about this vital issue. In the event of Wynyard not going ahead, centralisation in North Tees is unacceptable. Services have to be returned to Hartlepool.