Stay of execution for local hospital

MARK NICHOLLS A Norfolk community hospital threatened with closure as part of a major shake-up of health services in the county has been given a surprise stay of execution.

MARK NICHOLLS

A Norfolk community hospital threatened with closure as part of a major shake-up of health services in the county has been given a surprise stay of execution.

Plans to axe St Michael's at Aylsham are now on hold after a health watchdog body raised serious concerns about the alternative care plans that would come into effect once the unit shut.

And the decision by Norfolk's health overview and scrutiny committee (HOSC) at its meeting yesterday has had the impact of leaving the whole of Norfolk Primary Care Trust's plans on community hospitals in limbo until the matter is clarified.

Last night, campaigners fighting to save St Michael's were jubilant.

Aylsham Town Council chairman Liz Jones said: “We came to the meeting thinking we would lose everything but we have a stay of execution; we live to fight another day.”

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St Michael's is the only community hospital in the county earmarked for closure as a consequence of the PCT's intermediate care strategy which aims to shift care away from community hospitals and into people's homes.

Initially, nine hospitals were affected with a number threatened with closure and bed numbers cut from 201 to 158. But after public campaigns and a 90-day consultation, bed numbers will fall from 201 to around 178, including the building of a 40-bed stroke rehabilitation unit for central Norfolk.

However, St Michael's was to be a casualty and doomed to close within two years. But now campaigners are rallying to try to keep St Michael's open.

Yesterday, PCT bosses updated the HOSC on their plans, but councillors were unhappy about the lack of detail available on alternatives for when St Michael's closed.

The committee was told that Aylsham would retain five beds at an undisclosed location through a deal with the charity Aylsham Care Trust. But details of the arrangement were not forthcoming, with the care trust at this stage preferring to negotiate with the PCT behind closed doors.

The committee felt it could not approve the plan until, as one councillor put it: “they knew what they were agreeing to.”

The stumbling block over the Aylsham alternatives has effectively frozen the PCT's plans for intermediate care in Norfolk, at least until more information is offered to the HOSC's next meeting on October 18.

However, the committee stopped short of referring the issue to health secretary Alan Johnson for a total review.

The meeting heard from the PCT's director of provider services Mark Taylor about the intermediate care plans, which will see general rehabilitation and palliative care beds centred on community hospitals in Norwich, Dereham, Kelling, North Walsham and Swaffham.

The concern of committee members over plans for Aylsham and other affected units was also voiced. Representations were made from Aylsham campaigners over the St Michael's proposal, including the views of local county councillor Graham Rix, who died last week.

In his statement read out to the meeting he called for the proposals to be referred to the health secretary, saying the decision to shut the 24-bedded hospital is viewed as a “serious mistake” by the town, which feels its protests have largely been ignored.

His view is backed by Aylsham GP Chris Pearce who has also submitted a report to the committee, detailing an alternative system of intermediate care. The committee was told that GPs in the Aylsham area felt they had not been consulted fully over the plans, although this was rejected by the PCT.

Mr Taylor said: “Under our plans, we have managed to retain most of the community-hospital infra-structure and provided a strong foundation for these sites to be built on in the future. We believe the consultation has been positive and the PCT has been able to achieve its aims while also listening to the people.”

The committee also heard concerns from campaigner Charles Simeons that Lascelles Ward at Kelling Hospital will close on October 1, despite that move not being consulted on, but members decided to take no further action on this point. But Mr Taylor argued that it was a small service change moving beds from the older Lascelles ward to newer facilities at Benjamin Court in Cromer.

The PCT also rejected criticism from the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Broadland, April Pond, who claimed the whole exercise was aimed at cutting costs.

PCT finance director David Stonehouse acknowledged that the PCT had debts of £47m at the start of the intermediate care process but said the trust was now on course to break even by March 2008. He pointed out that the changes to intermediate care would not make cost savings.

After a two-and-a-half hour debate, the committee decided it remained unhappy with the alternative plans for Aylsham.

Councillor Shaun Murphy said: “The proposals being made about Aylsham are very vague at the moment. I would like to know what the proposals are before we make a decision.”

The HOSC has asked its working group to evaluate more thoroughly the area of doubts with more information from the PCT and make a clear recommendation at its next meeting. It also agreed to put a monitoring process in place with the PCT over the wider changes. It also wanted to hear from the Aylsham Care Trust.

Mr Taylor confirmed that until the HOSC made a firm decision, limited progress could be made on the intermediate care plans apart from further preparatory work.

Afterwards, Aylsham council chairman Liz Jones spoke of her relief at the decision: “I came here expecting to lose everything but I am so relieved that members of the committee have realised the strength of feeling there is in Aylsham and that the community wants to see all of its services maintained.

“We have not been sentimental about the building, our community genuinely needs these services.”

She said the town council's working group was now keen to work with the HOSC working group over the alternatives.

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