CROYDON COMMENTARY: An MP for neighbouring Sutton got a most unwelcome birthday present yesterday, with the announcement of proposed closure to the Accident and Emergency and the maternity departments of St Helier Hospital. Here, ANDREW PELLING says that ConDem cuts are undermining the government’s junior partners locally
Tom Brake, the Carshalton and Wallington Liberal Democrat MP, was receiving a visit from an Elvis impersonator yesterday in celebration for his 50th birthday. He looks very healthy for his age. Tom Brake that is.
Sadly, if Tom does suffer any emergency illness in the future, he’ll likely not be visiting his local St Helier Hospital.
Across town an unelected and unaccountable “’scoring’ panel of 60 people, made up of councillors, GPs, patient groups and NHS representatives from the five boroughs of south-west London, recommended that St Helier Hospital could – potentially – lose its A&E and maternity units”. That’s the original quote from Epsom & St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust.
Who knows how the other hospitals considered by this panel – Croydon’s own Mayday, Kingston and St George’s in Tooting – are going to cope with the displaced 81,739 patients treated in the Sutton hospital’s Accident and Emergency department annually.
With London’s birth rate booming, it’s hard to pinpoint where space will be found without great expense for the mothers and babies moved out of St Helier. Last year, 3,317 babies were born in the St Helier maternity unit.
You can’t see the privately funded Portland, with its royal patronage, or the St John’s Wood Wellington being able to expand their maternity services so much as to meet the Coalition government’s desires to privatise child birth.
The cuts in public spending and reduced cap on NHS spending that Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs voted for is now having an impact back at home in the constituencies. This will make for a particularly uncomfortable coming months for Paul Burstow, the LibDem MP for Sutton and Cheam and a junior minister in the ConDem government … in the health department.
The opposition to the plans to close much-needed A&E and maternity departments quickly gathered pace last night, with Kevin O’Brien, the secretary of the Sutton and Merton TUC, stating emphatically, “This has got nothing to do with ‘Better Services Better Value’. This is about massive cuts, cuts and more cuts. The Liberal Democrats have sold their souls to the Tory Devil.”
Frustrated by the previous successful campaign by south London MPs – including LibDems Brake and Burstow – in the last parliament against an earlier plan to “rationalise” south-west London’s NHS, this time around, government ministers and NHS administrators conspired to keep the issue away from the politicians by setting up this panel to recommend one A&E and one maternity unit closure. No blood would stick to politicians’ hands they hoped, and this time closures might be achieved.
It was St Helier that got the black spot.
Good news for Mayday? Not really. Mayday A&E, already struggling to cope, will have to take up much of the slack if St Helier closes. Mainly, this is about concentrating south-west London health services in traffic gridlocked Tooting at St George’s, to the disadvantage of both Croydon’s and Sutton’s hospitals.
Epsom & St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust says it is going to fight the closures.
The Nursing Times was last night reporting a prospective legal challenge through a judicial review. This will add to the public money already squandered by Croydon Council on a legal challenge to the scoring process.
It was also notable that this decision came out less than a week after the London elections were done and dusted, with Boris Johnson safely re-elected as Mayor.
Not much attention was given in the recent election campaign to London Assembly Member Steve O’Connell’s Conservative-run Croydon Council going to court to try to force St Helier’s closure, rather than Mayday’s.
There has been a lot of duplicity from politicians on this issue.
They are pleased that this is being dealt with at arm’s length.
Croydon Central’s MP, Gavin Barwell, had Andrew Lansley, now the senior government health minister, down to Mayday before the General Election in 2010. Lansley promised that the south-west London review to rationalise local NHS services would be dropped. After the election, Barwell boasted that the new government had dropped the review plans at Lansley’s instruction.
How does that promise and boast look this morning?
Burstow, though, looks to be in an even more untenable position as far as his Sutton and Cheam constituents are concerned. He is actually working in the Whitehall department that is pursuing these plans to concentrate services more remotely from patients.
Burstow has the bedside manner to be a good health minister. He continues to pretend that he is campaigning against his own department’s rationalisation of south-west London’s NHS. When not being a government minister for health, he has behaved in a way that psychiatrists would identify as being schizophrenic, writing as a local MP to NHS bosses asking them to protect St Helier.
He even braved the chilly St Helier hilltop winter winds this year with Brake and the retiring leader of Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton Council, Sean Brennan, to hold the letters SOS outside the doomed hospital. As on so many occasions in the past couple of years, ConDem government MPs boasted that the money to rebuild St Helier promised under the previous Labour administration was still safe.
The Liberal Democrats had even had the hubris to declare victory for their campaign for the hospital in the June after the Coalition was set up in May 2010.
This was just months after Labour’s Siobhain McDonagh MP had also posed outside the hospital with her banners. At least she got the initial promise £219 million from Gordon Brown to rebuild the place.
The recent collapse of the proposed merger between the managing trusts for St George’s and St Helier left the Sutton hospital exposed, and the Labour MP railed at doctors who decided not to go ahead with the merger. This spat underlined how the Coalition, through the Conservative belief in “market-driven solutions” to the NHS – in plain language, handing over NHS services to private, profit-making companies – were allowing politicians to be removed from the process of deciding local health provision.
Before the General Election, Brake spoke about how the “priority must be St Helier Hospital”. His website described the MP as “Tom Brake, who has campaigned passionately for the future of St Helier Hospital”. Residents were asked to add their name to the LibDem petition to “Save Our St Helier”.
Now, it appears that Brake is less effective in representing his constituents’ interests when part of a Conservative-led government, than he was when sitting on opposition benches during a Labour-run administration.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Brake asked David Cameron for a re-assurance about the £219 million for St. Helier. Assurance there was none.
Brake did, though, get a letter from his Liberal Democrat friend Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying that the money was still available.
Don’t hold your breath though. It looks like curtains for St Helier’s A&E and maternity units, so the Treasury will undoubtedly rake back much of the promised money.
What you can count on though is campaigns by the Health Minister Burstow, along with Tom Brake, against Burstow’s health department’s very own cuts.
Will these campaigns really have any credibility?
- Inside Croydon: Living life on the fringes of Croydon. Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at email@example.com
- Panel picks St Helier A&E closure (bbc.co.uk)
- Croydon questions: Abigail Lock, Liberal Democrats (insidecroydon.com)