IAIN WRIGHT: Government must face up to reality

University Hospital of Hartlepool.
University Hospital of Hartlepool.

You may have seen news that the further downgrading and closing of services in the region’s hospitals looks inevitable as the new Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) in the NHS demand that NHS Trusts deal with their financial deficits. As a whole, the NHS budget is set to be cut by £25 billion by 2020-21.

England has been divided into 44 STP areas to develop and deliver the plans. Each one is made up of NHS providers, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), local authorities and other health and care services who are tasked with working together to create a plan based on local health needs.

A survey by the Health Service Journal found that 52 per cent of the STPs involve closing or downgrading community hospitals; 46 per cent involved cutting hospital beds, 31 per cent plan to close or downgrade A&Es, 21 per cent planning to stop consultant-led maternity services and 22 per cent intending to reduce the number of hospital staff.

Hartlepool will be part of the Durham, Darlington and Tees, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby STP and the final plan for this region has now been published. Under the proposals James Cook University Hospital would become a specialist hospital and major trauma centre, with either Darlington Memorial or North Tees turning into a specialist emergency hospital.

Hartlepool, along with The Friarage, in Northallerton, Bishop Auckland and either Darlington or North Tees could become “local” hospitals, with the Friarage being the only remaining hospital with an A&E department. This new “local” model for hospitals has not been given a robust definition yet but it will likely mean there will be no operating theatres, medical or surgical beds, as well as no A&E. This is unacceptable.

As I am sure anyone reading this will be aware, reconfiguration of hospital services in Hartlepool has caused significant anxiety over the past 20 years and remains subject to considerable uncertainty and this is further unwelcome news. In particular the prospect of A&E closing at North Tees, meaning people from Hartlepool would need to travel to Sunderland or James Cook, is just not acceptable. There should be concrete plans to return A&E services to Hartlepool, not transferring them further away from the town.

The crux of the problem is, as NHS providers have recently said, that the gap between the services the NHS is being asked to deliver and the funding it has been given by the Government is not only too big but it is growing rapidly.

The chair of Parliament’s Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, could not have been clearer when they said that the figure of ‘£10 billion” extra funding for the NHS that the Government has claimed “is not only incorrect but risks giving a false impression that the NHS is awash with cash…this claim does not stand up to scrutiny”. In addition, Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, has also been very clear that not only has the Government not given the NHS £10 billion funding but has been clear that for the next three years the NHS “didn’t get the funding we requested”. Rather than pretending the funding crisis in the NHS isn’t happening and saying that there’s no more money, leaving Trusts with little choice but to make extremely painful cuts, the Government and the Prime Minister need to face up to the reality and do something about it. That means funding the NHS in a safe and proper way, recruiting the staff that they need, and returning services to Hartlepool.