New hope in fight to save hospital

CAMPAIGNERS fighting to save a Suffolk hospital from closure are claiming a partial victory on the day they took their battle to the heart of the British Government.

CAMPAIGNERS fighting to save a Suffolk hospital from closure are claiming a partial victory on the day they took their battle to the heart of the British Government.

Health bosses agreed yesterday to delay a decision on the future of the ageing Walnuttree Hospital in Sudbury – despite fears they would announce its closure tomorrow .

The West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust says any decision on the future of the 68-bed hospital should now be postponed to allow Suffolk Fire Service to assess the level of risk and see if work can be taken to keep it open.

Campaigners are hailing the new stance of the trust as a "crucial" development in the fight to keep the hospital open until a long awaited new £20m replacement is built in Sudbury.

The trust was expected to announce closure of the hospital at its board meeting tomorrow if the results of an independent fire risk assessment it commissioned found the hospital to be a fire hazard.

It has already put together contingency plans to relocate patients and staff throughout the local health service.

Most Read

Even though the report suggests the hospital is a "high risk" and would cost millions to bring up to required safety standards, the trust's chief executive Chris Bown says any decision should be put on hold.

He says time must be given to allow the trust to liaise with the fire service to see if medial work can be carried out to make the hospital manageable until the new facility, due to open in 2007, is built.

Only last year Suffolk Fire Service carried out an inspection at the 168-year-old facility and made a number of recommendations to the trust about reasonable fire safety measures that could be taken, and campaigners are confident it will do the same again.

Leading campaigner Michael Mitchell, a hospital porter, said: "The most significant development is the trust saying no immediate decision should be made, which is fantastic news.

"This is a partial victory for the campaign, but there is still a long way to go – we will fight closure all the way. There is no new fire risk at Walnuttree that cannot be managed until the new hospital opens, this is an opinion that has always been backed by Suffolk Fire Service and I am confident that attitude will not have changed in just a year because nothing has changed at the hospital."

Yesterday's dramatic development came on a day of high profile demonstrations staged by the 40-strong action group, which saw a 10,000-signature petition handed over at the Department of Health in Whitehall and 10 Downing Street.

The protests started with the group, which included hospital staff, Unison officials, patients and civic leaders stage an hour-long banner waving demonstration outside the West Suffolk Hospital, Bury St Edmunds. The petition was also handed over to health bosses from the health trust, the Suffolk West Primary Care Trust and the Strategic Health Authority.

After receiving the petition Mr Bown said: "I am not surprised by the strong public reaction to this important and emotive issue. It is paramount that we provide service in a facility that is safe and that is why I commissioned an independent assessment.

"The survey has demonstrated a high level of risk and that the costs would be high to make the hospital fully compliant with current safety standards. We now need to liaise with the fire service to seek its views over whether measures can be taken to make the hospital manageable until the new facility is built and that is why I have recommended no decision is made until we have consulted the fire service over what the next steps should be."

The campaign group then travelled to the Department for Health to hand over the petition to representatives of health minister John Reid, before heading to Downing Street.

Labour's south Suffolk parliamentary candidate Kevin Craig, who organised the visit to Downing Street, said: "We have taken this fight to the highest levels of the Government today, which sends a clear message to the trust that we will not accept the closure of Walnuttree until Sudbury has a new hospital.

"We have learned today the trust is not likely to make a decision on Friday, which is real progress. This is a really significant development because up until now, we feared the trust might announce the closure of the hospital this week. We will now keep up our campaign to prove there is no justification for closing Walnuttree at this stage."

South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo joined the campaigners at Downing Street and said the trust's justifications for closing Walnuttree was now showing "chinks in its armour".

"The strong feeling of the people of Sudbury and across west Suffolk that Walnuttree should be left open is abundantly clear and we will fight this together to the bitter end.

"It appears the trust has already made a significant back down and the case for closure is showing major chinks in its armour. Everybody is angry that health services are being threatened by what is blatantly financial reasons and I am going to try to raise this issue in the Commons before Christmas."