Is hospital delay deliberate?

HOSPITAL campaigners have accused health bosses of trying to delay a crunch council meeting until the Government has given the green light for a new hospital.

An extraordinary Hartlepool Borough Council meeting was abandoned last week because there were not enough seats for the amount of public that wanted to listen to the health debate.

During the meeting a vote of “no confidence” in the health trust was expected to be tabled by a councillor over the closure of the town’s A&E department at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.

Early the same day health bosses had outlined an expected announcement on the future on the £300m hospital at Wynyard – with a key announcement expected over funding in early October.

But now health chiefs from NHS Hartlepool and the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust say the earliest opportunity they have to attend a rearranged meeting would be October 17.

Keith Fisher, chair of the Save Our Hospital group, believes they are delaying meeting with councillors and residents until funding for the new hospital has been backed.

Mr Fisher said: “I personally think that they are trying to delay so that they can come to the meeting with some good news from the government about backing funding to build a new hospital at Wynyard.”

It has been previously reported that a decision on funding could be made in early October, meaning there is a chance that the rearranged meeting would have little or no impact in letting government health chiefs know of the anger that has been brought about by changes in Hartlepool.

The Department for Health is due to rubber-stamp the hospital business case in October, before getting approval from the Treasury within 30 days.

Health chiefs moved quickly to deny the claims, stressing that the dates put forward in October are the first available time when all of the “appropriate” representatives would be free to attend.

The Mail asked to interview Alan Foster, the chief executive of North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, to discuss the campaigners’ claims, but he was unavailable.

However, a joint statement from NHS Hartlepool and North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said: “It is vital that we have the appropriate clinical and managerial representatives at the meeting from both ourselves and the primary care trust who can deal with any questions or issues which arise.

“We appreciate it is important to offer an evening date and given clinical and other long-standing commitments, October 17 was the first available option.”

Councillors could hold an extraordinary meeting without health bosses.

But members said they would prefer to get answers to their questions before a vote of “no confidence” is tabled, as proposed by Liberal Democrat councillor Edna Wright.

Labour councillor Carl Richardson, chair of the council, revealed the proposed dates at Thursday’s meeting of the full council.

Coun Richardson added: “The biggest problem is getting them both together. Two dates have been put forward, October 17 and 20.

“That is scandalous, but that is the situation.”

Councillors reacted angrily to the announcement.

Labour councillor Chris Simmons said: “To take a month to bring two groups of people responsible for health care together is an absolute disgrace.”

Coun Wright said: “The dates that they have given us shows the level of arrogance that we are dealing with.”

Labour councillor Rob Cook said: “As usual we have been treated with contempt; they are sticking two fingers up to the people of Hartlepool.”

His colleague Jonathan Brash said it was a “disgrace”, while Liberal Democrat group leader Arthur Preece said it was “unacceptable”.

Conservative group leader, Ray Wells said it “beggars belief”, but added they couldn’t hold a meeting without health bosses present.

The A&E service was declared unfit for purpose after an independent review back in March.

Instead, patients in need of emergency attention are now being dealt with at the £20m One Life Hartlepool, in Park Road.

After an hour-long debate, and a series of votes, it was agreed to hold a public meeting to give residents the chance to ask questions.

That will be followed immediately by an extraordinary council meeting, at which a motion calling for a vote of “no confidence” in the Trust will be tabled.

The date, time and venue are yet to be confirmed but councillors say they will be as “flexible” as possible and will push to have it sooner than October 17.

Independent councillor Geoff Lilley argued the longer it takes for an extraordinary meeting and vote of “no confidence” to be held, the weaker the case for asking for a review.

He said: “It would significantly weaken our argument.

“It will be the only opportunity as a council to take that decision and then write to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.”

The debate was sparked after Coun Lilley asked Coun Richardson what made him limit public access to 60 for the extraordinary meeting.

Coun Richardson said that there was room for 60 residents, 48 members, 10 NHS representatives and supporting officers.

He added that it was capped for health and safety reasons in response to a threat of “civil disobedience” on an internet forum.

Coun Richardson said: “My first concern is public safety and I would do it again.”

The new hospital, which is aimed to replace existing hospitals in Hartlepool and Stockton, looks set to be funded through a PFI deal.

PFIs see private firms fund such projects, while the public sector makes repayments over many years so public bodies do not have to pay huge upfront sums for new buildings or major redevelopments.