Updated: May 10
I rarely write about politics on this blog, but sometimes an issue arises which is so stark that every available method of mobilising against it has to be used. The proposal to close Lewisham Hospital’s Accident & Emergency department – refurbished at a cost of £12m and re-opened in April this year – in order to bail out a neighbouring health trust that has been declared bankrupt is one such issue.
It’s a decision that will leave 750,000 people in south east London with one A&E, and one which has implications for everyone who relies on and values the NHS. A campaign is already being pulled together to oppose this dangerous decision and you can read about it at the Save Lewisham A&E website. Local MPs and campaign groups have been joined by celebrities including Lewisham-born Boy George. For some more detail and personal perspective, read on.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the proposal to close Lewisham Hospital A&E is anything but ideologically driven. Neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust is losing £65m a year. It took out unaffordable bank loans at the same time as rules preventing the distribution of surpluses from other Trusts were introduced. Despite excellent records on medical care, the hospitals in the SLHT have been deemed failures, and the administrator is recommending another £100m in cuts. To help the heavily indebted Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich increase its income, that same administrator has recommended the closure of Lewisham A&E in order to force more patients through the doors of the Queen Elizabeth.
One in five patients at the Queen Elizabeth currently wait more than four hours for treatment as the hospital struggles to cope with the influx caused by the closure of the A&E department at Queen Mary’s, Sidcup. The closure of Lewisham A&E will only increase those waiting times, and that’s before the effect of the £100m of cuts is felt. The Queen Elizabeth is regularly filled to capacity, meaning overflow patients are sent to the Daren’t Valley hospital 17 miles away. If you have an accident on the South Circular and need urgent treatment, you will die before you get to hospital.
Lewisham’s A&E was refurbished at a cost of £12m and opened in April this year. Viewers of BBC1’s The Choir saw the hospital choir perform in the new department just weeks ago on primetime TV. A&E at Lewisham has a justifiably strong reputation, as does paediatric care. It is a successful hospital. And yet it is being penalised for the failing of a neighbouring trust. The trick of penalising one hospital for the supposed failings of another has already been used. The closure of the A&E at Queen Mary’s in Sidcup two years ago heaped the pressure on the Queen Elizabeth. And A&E closures are often precursors to the closure of entire hospitals.
The NHS has built up cash reserves of £4bn. And yet the political, not economic, decision, has been taken that these cannot be used. Money from one area cannot be used to bail out another. But money can be cut from one area to bail out another. One of the many insidious products of this situation is that it seeks to set one part of the NHS against another. But this is really about a full-frontal assault on the NHS.
The administrator has recommended South London Healthcare Trust be dissolved and has invited expressions of interest from parties wishing to take over services. Land is to be sold off to private developers, and private healthcare companies invited to bid for healthcare provision services. Last year the SLHT spent £10m on private consultancy fees and agency staff. Since 2001, 41 private healthcare companies have made donations totalling £8.3m to the Conservative Party. The big winners from these proposals will be private health care companies. The big losers will be ordinary people who rely on the NHS.
If you are not one of the 750,000 people in the London boroughs of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley who will be directly affected by this plan, you need to act. If you are one of the people who will be affected, but not quite so directly or quite so soon, you need to act. And if you are one of the people who relies on or values the NHS, one of the UK’s greatest success stories, you need to act – because if the privatisers and the ideological opponents of the NHS succeed in south east London, they will try to succeed elsewhere.
Details of how to get involved are on the website linked at the top of this post. At the very least, please read up on the subject and make your own mind up.