Cottage hospital fears

RICHARD BATSON A major cull of community hospitals could be carried out to balance the books of Norfolk's new health authority, an MP warned last night. And with north Norfolk having the lion's share of cherished cottage hospitals, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb is worried that his constituents could face the most pain in any cutbacks.

RICHARD BATSON

A major cull of community hospitals could be carried out to balance the books of Norfolk's new health authority, an MP warned last night .

And with north Norfolk having the lion's share of cherished cottage hospitals, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb is worried that his constituents could face the most pain in any cutbacks.

He is seeking an undertaking from the acting chief executive of the new Norfolk-wide primary care trust that they will not try to close any community hospitals in the north of the county.

Mr Lamb is writing to Hilary Daniels saying that such a move would be a “massively retrograde step which would put the short-term financial crisis above the long-term needs of north Norfolk residents”.

Concern is growing that the new countywide health trust will have to look at taking drastic action to wipe out the £30m worth of debts it is inheriting from its five predecessors, including a north Norfolk trust which contributed almost half that total.

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Its first board meeting will take place at Swaffham's Ecotech Centre on Thursday October 19 at 2pm, when Mrs Daniels says more information will be available about a “review of all budgets and services” which was currently under way.

She added: “Norfolk PCT started life on October 1 with a well-documented deficit and must take steps to regain financial balance.” However it was “too early to say what the outcome of the review would be”.

Mr Lamb recently launched a Hands Off Our Hospitals petition in his patch, because of concern about units including Kelling Hospital at Holt, Benjamin Court at Cromer, North Walsham cottage hospital.

He said the new trust was under an obligation to break even, and there would be added pressure to make cuts from the regional health authority.

“There are very real fears we could be faced with proposals to cut back further or close some or all of the community hospitals. That would be unacceptable and horrifying.”

“We have a set of hospitals serving one of the biggest elderly populations in Britain and which are held in high regard. It would be shameful to even contemplate closing them,” said Mr Lamb.

“It would be an enormously negative step which could cause great anxiety.”

He stressed that the new trust was “in an impossible position”, and that his challenge, although written to the trust which would have to make the decisions, was directed at the Government, whose “hopeless mismanagement” of health funding had created the situation.

The local trusts' problems were due to inadequate funding for rural areas, and the problems radiating from the much-condemned private finance deal at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Mr Lamb appreciated there were moves to switch some care from hospitals into people's homes, but did not believe the infrastructure was yet in place to ensure that happened without hitting patient care.