NHS protest camp and a new Jarrow march – whatever it takes to save our hospitals By Jos Bell

12 August 2014 — OurNHS

Late summer brings a surge of protest against plans to close down swathes of hospital provision, even as its revealed a growing lack of beds means patients are waiting hours in ambulances.

This weekend a health-related camp issued a plea.

‘Urgent appeal for long metal pins and heavy duty guy ropes/draw ropes – urgently needed at camp!’   

Not a plea from Medical Aid for Palestine in ravaged Gaza, but from the ‘accidental camp‘ set up in the Hunt-stricken Stafford Hospital, now facing an additional threat from the remnants of Hurricane Bertha.

Just a few short years ago, none would have believed it possible that a community would need to defend a hospital in this way. 

But the cuts are biting.

Public health is crumbling. This week hospitals have reported a 71% rise in patients admitted suffering from malnutrition since 2010, including a 31% rise in the yesteryear Vitamin C deficiency disease, scurvy. Echoes of Daniel Defoe and Proust in the 21st century. 

We learn too that the equivalent of three early intervention Sure Start centres have been closed each week since the election. 623 communities with reduced life chances and the loss of important public health projects.

Hospitals have been left “full to bursting”, in the words of Jamie Reed, Shadow Health Minister.

“A&E departments get full and there is nowhere left for anyone to go. We have fewer beds than almost any country in Europe,” explains President of the College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Cliff Mann.

New figures obtained by Labour under Freedom of Information show an 87% rise in the number of patients being forced to wait half an hour or more in the back of an ambulance until there is space for them in A&E. 280,000 patients suffered “handover delays” of at least 30 minutes last year, with 30,000 forced to wait for an hour or more. Some West Midlands patients waited as long as 8 hours.  

Thousands of frightened and vulnerable people are being held in the backs of ambulances for hours.

But ambulances too are full to bursting. In Stafford, such waits tie up a local NHS ambulance service already struggling since losing chunks of its income and business to a private company, NSL, which bid low to wrest the contracts from the NHS (and now wants to jack up the price it gets paid by the taxpayer).

And acute beds are full, exacerbated by huge cuts to social care. Those in need of more than 15 minutes’ support visits have found themselves stranded in hospital wards for extended periods, unable to be discharged into the community.

The knock-on effect is that hospital waiting times for elective surgery are at a 6 year high. Jeremy Hunt has been forced to admit failings and allocate an emergency fund, if only to placate disgruntled patients in key Tory constituencies. 

Nonetheless, Hunt persists with his wider hospital closure plans, ignoring the many warnings.

Clara Newman spent 15 hours of the last two days of her 92-year life on a trolley, after a wait with a delayed and frustrated ambulance crew. Powerless to do anything, the overloaded Princess Royal Hospital could do no more than tend to her as best as they could until a bed was finally available. In the meantime the chest infection for which she’d been admitted spread into her bloodstream and she lost her life.

A&Es are full. Ambulances are full. Acute beds are full. No wonder communities are worried and scared about further cuts to come.

At Lewisham Hospital, Jeremy Hunt planned to close 60% of services. Had campaigners not stopped him in the High Court, the remaining A&Es would not have coped. King’s is already the busiest A&E in the country with some of the longest trolley waits, as we saw in ’24 Hours in A&E’. The other alternative, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Woolwich site, was found by the CQC to be ‘not fit for purpose’ in its February 2014 inspection.

Epsom A&E was similarly being prepared for early closure. It has been reprieved by dint of being located in the constituency of Coalition bright boy MP Tom Brake. It seems the rescued facility has emerged as being ‘worth it’.

But elsewhere, chaotic and reckless closures are being forced through in the face of opposition from communities and staff. 

In North West London, by the Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust and Hammersmith CCG, where local MP Andy Slaughter has been branded a ‘liar’ for highlighting concerns.

In Manchester – where planners have been accused of ‘incompetence’ and ‘unintelligible gobbledegook’ as they attempt to cover over the holes in their re-configuration plans with patronising ‘consultations’.

In Stafford – where having tried and failed to win a judicial review against hospital services closures at her own financial cost, Labour parliamentary candidate Kate Godfrey has called upon sitting Stafford MP Jeremy LeFroy to call out Hunt by resigning to trigger a by-election. 

Planners say they are saving lives. But their evidence is based almost entirely on specialist trauma unit figures – whilst studiedly ignoring the needs of other emergency patients.

A new study from the US shows that closures of emergency rooms bring with them a 5% increase in fatalities. In Newark and Nottinghamshire, A&E closure led to a horrible 37% increase in death rates. A 1% increase in mortality per additional kilometre in an ambulance – if you can get one in the first place. 

Evidence is a powerful tool. And it’s something our current government dislike intensely. So much so they sometimes try to delete it from the internet – like their infamous ‘no more top down reorganisation’ pledge. As @EvidenceUK tweeted: ‘5 times David Cameron told this NHS lie. 5 times ToryHQ deleted it from their Site. Tks@GabrielScally for unearthing’.

Change can either be sudden and shocking or stealthily applied under the radar – until, that is, the individual stories of distress can be patched together into a Bayeux Tapestry of pain and needless loss of life.

The legislative barbarianism of the Health and Social Care Act, along with a starvation of funds, has reduced and undermined services to the point they can be maligned, attacked as not fit for purpose, and withdrawn.

The Secretary of State – stripped of his duty to secure a comprehensive health service – has a land grab in mind for our hospital buildings, as he inadvertently revealed on BBC Question Time.

Is there anything out there which will make this government care? A few nudges from key groups like the Royal Colleges may possibly concentrate their minds in the run up to a General Election. A few brave individuals are taking court challenges – such as 35-year old disabled patient Danny Currie, who is taking legal action against the cuts that threaten to close the East London GP surgery he uses.

And some campaigners are talking tougher still. A member of the Save Stafford Hospital Campaign… warns that if managers lie or use ‘fudged figures’ to justify closures, they ‘will be held liable for manslaughter personally if anyone dies or becomes seriously ill as a result of his actions.’ 

Labour’s Shadow Health Team have presented their own plans for an integrated care solution.

Is there yet still time to save our NHS? This is certainly no time for prevarication. On 16th August campaigners will set out from Darlington in a fight to preserve the very best our public sector has to offer.

The 999 March for the NHS  will set out to replicate the Jarrow Marchers route – landing in Parliament Square on the afternoon of 6th September. It’s the brainchild of a group of ‘Darlo Mums’ who invite us all to join in for a mile, 10 miles or even for the full 300, with all ages welome.

About the author

Jos Bell is a social economist and researcher who has a wide public sector background, working at national level in the fields of family & community services, the NHS & public health. She writes on health and disability issues.

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