Campaigners welcome health U-turn

CAMPAIGNERS fighting health service cuts in west Suffolk were last night claiming a partial victory after health chiefs revealed a decision to slash bed numbers and sell a hospital was now under “review”.

CAMPAIGNERS fighting health service cuts in west Suffolk were last night claiming a partial victory after health chiefs revealed a decision to slash bed numbers and sell a hospital was now under “review”.

In April this year, burdened with debts of £16.1 million, Suffolk West Primary Care Trust decided to remove all 48 inpatient beds at Newmarket Hospital and Sudbury's Walnuttree Hospital.

Although outpatient services would be kept at the two sites, Sudbury's second hospital - St Leonard's - was to be closed and sold.

These proposals are currently subject to judicial review by the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

But in a dramatic twist yesterday, Suffolk Primary Care Trust (PCT), which absorbed Suffolk West Primary Care Trust earlier this year, announced these plans were under review which “may lead to a rethink of the decisions that were taken”.

Decisions made on health services elsewhere in Suffolk - which include selling the Bartlett Hospital in Felixstowe and the Hartismere Hospital in Eye, and cutting the number of beds at Aldeburgh Hospital from 36 to 20 - are not affected by the review, and these moves still stand.

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The possible U-turn by the trust, which still maintains it is set to make £6 million of savings by March next year, was yesterday welcomed by campaigners who fought against the decision - though some still fear the PCT's continuing struggles with debt will simply mean new cuts elsewhere.

Suffolk West MP Richard Spring said: “The consultation process in respect of community beds in West Suffolk local hospitals was an absolute farce, not rooted in any reality.

“There are simply not the community support structures to replace the removal of hospital beds in Newmarket.

“People felt, quite rightly, that the exercise was nothing to do with enhancing patient care, but simply driven by the NHS financial crisis in Suffolk”.

But he warned: “We have to face the fact that we continue to have a massive budgetary crisis in Suffolk. “However it would be entirely irrational to rip the heart out of Newmarket Hospital, which should be providing many more NHS services - it is only 10 years old, has a dedicated and caring staff, who need reassurance.”

However, Michael Mandelstam, of the Walnuttree Hospital Action Committee, said he was very worried about the announcement from the PCT.

Comparing the move to a “military tactic” and calling it a “ploy”, he voiced his fears that by ditching the previous plans the PCT hoped to get rid of the judicial review before coming back to the table with new service slashing plans.

He said: “I would love say this is marvellous, but I fear we should prepare ourselves for some pretty disastrous proposals.”

Warwick Hirst, chairman of Newmarket Health Forum, said the review was cause for “cautious optimism” adding: “It is good news. I have met some of the new PCT staff and they seem extremely able and they have had a fresh look at this. But we also wonder where this fresh look might lead.”

Tim Yeo, South Suffolk MP, said: “Anything that represents a backing down is something we are obviously pleased with. But we are looking for something much more concrete before we take our feet of the pedal.”

A spokewoman for Suffolk PCT said: “There is a review that the PCT is undertaking and this review is looking very closely at the previous consultation and taking into account the views of stakeholders and related issues such as the acute services review across the east of England.

“This review may lead to a rethink on the decisions that were taken by Suffolk West PCT. This could be a glimmer of hope, though we've still got make savings.”

Services in west Suffolk - the current position:

l On April 11 this year Suffolk West PCT decided to close 16 inpatient beds at Newmarket and 32 at Walnuttree Hospital and the closure of St Leonard's Hospital.

l Suffolk West PCT's decision on Sudbury was then referred by Suffolk County Council to the Secretary of State for judicial review, which may not be concluded until late summer next year.

l In the meantime the newly-formed Suffolk PCT will be reviewing the position and listening to community representatives who were involved in the original discussions.

l A decision on whether to scrap Suffolk West PCT's decision will be made once more is known about a separate review of acute medical services at hospitals across the region. This review, being carried out by the East of England Strategic Health Authority should be known next month.

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