Proposals to close hospital ward and suspend planned surgery branded a 'travesty and disaster'
PUBLISHED: 16:39 21 September 2018 | UPDATED: 17:00 21 September 2018
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital
Potentially life-saving surgery at a failing Norfolk hospital could be suspended, this newspaper can reveal today.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn was judged as inadequate by inspectors earlier this month.
But proposals which would see one ward shut down and planned surgery, including cancer procedures, suspended, have been mooted by the hospital’s regulator NHS Improvement (NHSI) and are due to be discussed next week.
The move, which has left staff “running like hares”, has prompted fears more pressure could be put on the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), which is also in special measures and would mean a nearly 50 mile journey each way for patients.
Darren Barber, chairman of the QEH Joint Staff Consultative Committee, said: “We know these proposals have been made by NHSI at a meeting on September 18 and after lots of discussions around the trust I’m assured these are not proposals from the current trust board and executive team.
“If we were to do this it would be an absolute travesty and a disaster. This would impact the hospital, its deficit and financial status as this is money the QEH earns through its elective care.
“This would put us into a financial hole, we are already struggling with government cuts and if we lost the experience and the base of local staff - as they feel compromised, that their jobs are in danger - we would be in trouble.”
Some 5,060 elective inpatients were treated at the QEH last year, bringing in £11,240,000.
But a spokesman for NHSI said they had found staffing levels were too low in some areas and the potential closure of some beds would mean “staff can be redeployed to areas with greater staffing need”.
They added: “Patient safety is our first priority.”
And also said: “All proposals are temporary and for the trust’s board to make a decision on, with a view to ensuring safe and effective services for all its patients.”
Mr Barber said staff were frightened and many had contacted him.
“They’re like running hares,” he added. “I was inundated by different unions as all unions will be concerned. No union on the staff side had been contacted or been invited to this meeting by NHSI even though it is around staff issues, this would be a big staff issue where they would be the biggest stakeholder and staff would suffer the consequences.”
Mr Barber said he was worried that if the proposals went ahead the NNUH would not have the capacity to pick up the slack.
He said: “I do feel this is a political movement to merge or share services together which is not in the interests of the west Norfolk people as it’s a 49 mile difference [to the NNUH] and we should not have cancer patients who can’t get the care and support at the QEH.”
It is believed hospital bosses wanted to reject the proposals, which are due to be put forward in the private section of Tuesday’s board meeting.
In board papers released today (Friday), ahead of the meeting, it was also revealed Philippa Slinger had been appointed as improvement director to turn the trust around.
Ms Slinger already holds that role at the NNUH and Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), which has raised concerns over how much time she can dedicate to each trust.
Jon Green, QEH chief executive, said: “Our CQC inspection report made clear that we must improve our staffing levels to ensure high quality patient care on our wards at all times.
“To this end the trust board must consider a whole range of options to facilitate this including suggestions put forward by our regulator, our staff and our system partners.
“It would be inappropriate for me to comment further on this matter ahead of our board meeting on Tuesday.”
‘Proposals would drive doctors away’
Sir Henry Bellingham, MP for North West Norfolk said that he strongly supported the QEH management if they were to reject the ideas and said he would take the matter the health secretary Matt Hancock were they to go ahead.
He said: “I feel very strongly that whilst action is needed for the turnaround it would be very wrong and short-sighted to go for a short term fix of stopping all elective surgical activities.
“This would inevitably lead to the withdrawal of trainee doctors, and furthermore just at a time when the QEH is desperately trying to recruit and retain nurses and doctors these possible measures could have a reverse effect. Indeed, I would go as far as saying it would make the QEH much less attractive to many of them.
“Finally, I hope these possible proposals by NHS Improvement are not in any way seen as a serious solution to the problems the QEH faces. If there is any chance of them going through then I will resist them 100pc and immediately escalate this to the secretary of state.”
While Unison regional organiser Peter Passingham said: “The reports from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital are deeply worrying not only for staff but for the people of west Norfolk who rely on QEH.
“Staff work hard to ensure everyone that comes through the hospital’s doors receives the first-class care that makes the NHS the envy of the world but they are finding it harder and harder to do so with the government’s continued squeeze on health funding.
“We would urge these proposals to be rethought by NHSI because as they stand they do nothing to give staff and the public confidence that QEH is anything but a hospital in decline. More people will leave compounding already problematic staffing issues and the people of west Norfolk will be less safe.”
Improvement director now in charge of three trusts
At the time MPs, campaign groups and unions expressed their concern over her taking on the job of turning around two failings trusts.
Now, she has been handed a third Norfolk provider to take care of, with sources suggesting it was because NHSI had struggled to find anyone else to take up the posts.
But again NHSI has not allowed an interview with Ms Slinger and said her appointment at all three trusts was planned.
Darren Barber, chairman of the QEH Joint Staff Consultative Committee, said he was concerned over whether QEH would get enough support if Ms Slinger was working across three trusts.
And Alex Stewart, chief executive at Healthwatch Norfolk said: “While there are clearly advantages to appointing someone that can take a system wide look at issues across our local health organisations, there needs to be adequate support in place for this to be an effective strategy.”
An NHSI spokesman refused to answer how much time Ms Slinger would be spending at each trust but said: “It is usual practice for improvement directors to work across more than one special measures trust to bring about improvements to patient services. In this case, they will also have the support of an associate director.”
“Improvement Directors are one element among a range of support measures provided as part of the special measures programme.”
“We will update further on progress when appropriate to do so.’’
They also could not confirm the highest number of trusts any one improvement director was responsible for.