Hospital bosses were savaged by councillors, MP Iain Wright and unions for snubbing a public meeting where they were summoned to explain themselves to over the planned axing of licensed fertility services in Hartlepool.
Officials from North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust had been called to give reasons for the planned changes to the hospital’s Assisted Reproduction Unit before the council’s Audit and Governance Committee yesterday afternoon.
The worst example of arrogance that I have experienced in my lifetimeCouncillor Ray Martin-Wells, Audit and Governance Committee chairman
But the trust failed to send anyone other than a legal representative, who asked for the meeting to be adjourned.
The trust objected to the council committee inviting the fertility unit’s former consultant Dr Mohammed Menabawey to give evidence, questioning his impartiality.
Councillor Ray Martin-Wells, chairman of the Audit and Governance Committee, said: “The decision by the trust not to participate in this public debate about the future of fertility services at the town’s hospital is the worst example of arrogance that I have experienced in my lifetime.”
He described their non-attendance as “a massive slap in the face” and inexcusable.
Related story: Councillors call for Hartlepool hospital bosses to resign
Coun Martin-Wells added: “They have shown total contempt for this audit committee and views of local people, there is very little in the way of accountability, and clearly by snubbing this meeting they certainly don’t like to face any form of challenge.”
Trust legal representative Gina Wells, said the trust wanted an independent expert chosen by a clinical senate.
The meeting, which was well attended by the public, decided to ask Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to suspend the closure of the Hartlepool unit planned to happen after March 31.
The hospital trust previously said it made the decision “reluctantly” after a comprehensive review of the assisted reproduction unit because it could not recruit enough embryologists to continue to provide the current service safely.
Some general infertility treatments will still be provided.
But Mr Wright and Dr Menabawey claimed that did not stand up to scrutiny.
Mr Wright quoted an answer he received on January 25 from Health Minister Ben Gummer MP to a question he posed about the availability of embryologists.
Mr Gummer said: “The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) have advised that it is not aware of any issues concerning the availability of embryologists in the UK.”
Mr Wright said: “At best the trust could be accused of being half-hearted in its response to recruitment.
“At worst I think there has been a deliberate and surreptitious determination to close this unit regardless of the evidence put before it.”
Dr Menabawey, who helped to set up the Hartlepool unit, which was granted its licence in 1991, claimed embryologists from Newcastle have been supporting the Hartlepool unit since December and were willing to continue until another could be recruited.
He said: “I can get them an embryologist next week if they want from Greece or Spain. There is no problem bringing in specialists from anywhere in the world.”
Dr Menabaway, who no longer works for the trust, added he believed the decision was part of a hidden agenda by the trust to close the hospital.
The committee resolved to ask Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to suspend the planned closure of the Hartlepool unit so all the circumstances can be investigated by the regulator Monitor.
The resolution will also ask for previous department closures, also made on the grounds of clinical safety, including accident and emergency to be investigated.
The meeting will be reconvened at a later date to give the trust another chance to attend.
It also emerged yesterday that an extraordinary meeting of the council will be held, on a date still to be fixed, to discuss the hospital trust.