IAIN WRIGHT: Questions remain over fertility unit

The University Hospital of Hartlepool
The University Hospital of Hartlepool

I wrote last week about the announcement from the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust that it would close its IVF and Fertility Unit at the Assisted Reproduction Unit at Hartlepool Hospital by the end of March. On Friday, there was a meeting at Hartlepool Borough Council to discuss this matter and to allow people to scrutinise the Trust on this decision.

However, the Trust did not attend the meeting, sending instead a legal representative to make a statement on its behalf.

The Trust had requested that the meeting be adjourned. However, I have to say that this was a massive, even breathtaking presumption, on the part of the Trust. They must have known that there was a good chance that the committee of directly-elected councillors would have refused this request, and in that case it was the right and proper thing for the Trust to accept the wish of the Council and face scrutiny and questioning about its decision.

The reasoning behind the decision to close the Unit was that the Trust couldn’t recruit enough embryologists to continue to provide the service. However, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case.

Following the Trust’s announcement in mid-January regarding the proposed closure of the unit, I asked Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Health about the availability of embryologists, including any potential lack of suitable skilled people in his field. A Minister responded saying that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority had stated that it is not aware of any issues concerning the availability of embryologists in the UK.

In addition, Dr Menabawey, the consultant who set up the Unit some 25 years ago, stated that embryologists were available in the likes of Newcastle, Gateshead and North Tyneside.

Specialist consultants from Newcastle had been supporting the unit in the town for a couple of months and had offered to continue until such time as a replacement embryologist had been recruited.

Dr Menabawey stated that embryologists could be recruited from the likes of Greece, Spain or Syria to ensure that the service at the local hospital could continue. He stated quite explicitly that there would not be a problem in bringing in specialists from anywhere in the world to ensure that the unit would stay open.

I mentioned my view to the Committee. At best, the Trust could be accused of being half-hearted in its response to recruitment in this field. At worst, the Trust could be seeing as adopting a deliberate and surreptitious determination to close this unit regardless of the evidence or offers of assistance made.

The Council Committee agreed to ask the Health Secretary to suspend the planned closure of the Hartlepool unit so that the circumstances of the closure can be examined thoroughly by the health regulator Monitor. I fully support this stance.

There is a further point, which is in terms of how the Trust breached its statutory duties to attend this Committee.

I have resolved to ask the Secretary of State as to what sanctions can be put in place following this breach.

There are obvious questions regarding whether the same points about staff shortages, clinical safety and other serious reasons can be applied to other closures of the hospital, including the key point of Accident & Emergency. This is the next point which needs investigating thoroughly.