Minister blasts Norfolk hospital protest

Campaigners battling to save Norfolk's community hospitals were last night accused by a government minister of being “irresponsible and dishonest” and “playing politics”.

Campaigners battling to save Norfolk's community hospitals were last night accused by a government minister of being “irresponsible and dishonest” and “playing politics”.

Care services minister Ivan Lewis rounded on anti-closure activists and urged Norfolk Primary Care Trust (PCT) not to “run away from their responsibility” to make “necessary” changes to the county's intermediate health care.

The attack drew a stinging riposte from campaigners, who labelled Mr Lewis “remarkably insensitive” - and said his comments made it clear that the current public consultation on possible hospital closures and bed cuts was a “charade”.

The consultation period into the PCT's proposals to close some cottage hospitals and cut the number of community beds across Norfolk from 201 to 158 ends today.

Health chiefs want to close Cranmer House at Fakenham, St Michael's Hospital at Aylsham and Cromer's Benjamin Court to reduce hospital admissions and bring care closer to people's homes.

The PCT has a debt of £47m, and the proposals would save about £1.3m a year.

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Mr Lewis, speaking after an event to celebrate how Norfolk is pioneering a scheme to promote independent living among vulnerable adults, was unflinching about the need for change.

He said: “Those who automatically oppose any change are irresponsible, are often playing politics and are not being honest about changing public expectations and advances in modern healthcare.”

He added: “I think it's got to be decided by the PCT in this area, but they must only make decisions in proper consultation and authentic consultation with the local community and the local authority.

“They mustn't make decisions in isolation, but equally they can't run away from their responsibility to change services. They've got to consult and engage, but if they think change is necessary they must go ahead.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “I'm horrified by what he's saying. It's remarkably insensitive to those who have legitimate anxieties about what's planned.

“It presupposes that there's no alternative. It presupposes that the consultation is a complete farce.”

Mr Lewis's comments came at the same time that a meeting was held between three members of the PCT board and three people campaigning to keep cottage hospitals open.

Aylsham GP Chris Pearce, Celia Lee from the Friends of Cranmer House and Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesman for Broadland, April Pond, met PCT chairman Sheila Childerhouse and two other board members.

Mrs Pond said: “It gave me a chance to appeal to them as human beings.”

The new structure for the 158 community beds includes a 40-bed stroke unit and 26 rehab beds at Dereham Hospital, 26 rehab beds at Norwich Community Hospital, a further 26 at either North Walsham or Kelling Hospital at Holt and 40 “supported care” beds at as yet undisclosed locations across Norfolk.

Cranmer House, St Michael's and Benjamin Court would lose all their beds and clinical facilities under the proposals.

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