Anger over Aylsham hospital axe

There was widespread anger, disappointment and disbelief yesterday as the news filtered through Aylsham that the town's hospital is set to be shut for good.

By ED FOSS

There was widespread anger, disappointment and disbelief yesterday as the news filtered through Aylsham that the town's hospital is set to be shut for good.

But campaigners refused to admit defeat, stressing there is at least some small room for optimism, and have pledged to make themselves heard in force over the coming months in a bid to overturn the decision. They have pledged to restart their previously vocal fight by bussing dozens of people to the key Norfolk Primary Care Trust meeting at the UEA Sportspark's John Jarrold Suite on Tuesday.

It is thought that the PCT considered Aylsham to be the least flexible of the NHS sites in north Norfolk - the least suited to its vision for the future of intermediate health care.

But the fact that St Michael's Hospital has been earmarked to shut by 2009 was made all the worse in the eyes of townsfolk because they consider themselves to have been singled out for the chop over and above all other communities.

Liz Jones, chairman of the town council, said she was personally "extremely disappointed" and the news was particularly hard to take as they were the only community facing a closure.

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"I am totally astounded that there will soon be no beds in the whole Broadland District Council area, which has a growing and ageing population," said Mrs Jones.

"We have very poor public transport in Aylsham and many people find it difficult to travel.

"What have we done in Aylsham to deserve this?

"But if we are going to go down we will go down fighting. I would encourage as many people as possible to come to Tuesday's PCT meeting with us. We still live in a democracy and we can make noise and as much fuss as we want."

Chris Pearce, a GP at the Hungate Street surgery in Aylsham, felt the overall picture across the county proved the campaigners' argument about the need for beds had been proved.

And he added: "We are surprised St Michael's has been singled out, it will be a disaster if it does close," said Dr Pearce.

"But there are a number of issues to bear in mind.

"The proposed closure is two years away so we have time to argue our points again; there is a possibility some land nearby could be used to expand the hospital, which I feel would take away the argument for closure; this is still only a proposal and not a decision and the infrastructure at St Michael's is in a much better state than other hospitals.

"The fight will continue."

Andrew Wilton, chairman of St Michael's Hospital league of friends and a trade union representative, said: "It is devastating news, a blow to the town.

"But we shall not lie down and die. For a start we want to know why this decision has been made. Whether we can win the day I don't know, but we will continue to try."

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson, who has Aylsham in his constituency, said a "very impressive" campaign had been fought locally and he was "bitterly disappointed".

He was pessimistic about the prospect of the PCT board changing the proposal, which meant the next challenge was to find out what happened next.

"We need detail about what health services will remain in Aylsham and in what form and what opportunities will be given to people who may be made redundant in terms of relocation and retraining.

"My gut instinct tells me instead of trying to re-fight the old battles, we have to make certain that what is on offer next meets a set of key requirements."

St Michael's workhouse opened in 1849.

With the foundation of the National Health Service in 1948, part of the building evolved into a place of treatment and rehabilitation.

In its heyday it was a nationally-recognised centre of excellence in rheumatology.

Services have gradually been eroded over the years, leaving only a 24 to 26-bedded community hospital and a number of out-patient clinics.

People wanting to reserve a space on the Aylsham protest bus should contact the town hall on 01263 733354 or e-mail townclerk@aylsham-tc.gov.uk. The PCT meeting will run from 10am to noon. Bookings must be made by Friday.

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