Published: 5 February 2010
BROADCASTER Melvyn Bragg, writer Tariq Ali and actress Michelle Collins are among prominent figures who have added their voices to the Tribune’s Save our Whittington campaign.
Their support comes amid revelations of how few Islington residents were involved in the initial consultation exercise into plans which threaten the future of the Archway hospital. The shock proposals, first revealed in the Tribune in November, have cast serious doubt over the future of the accident and emergency unit at the Highgate Hill hospital.
In November 2007, government quango Healthcare for London launched a five-month public consultation on radical reforms proposed by Lord Darzi, then the health minister. His Framework for Action – a Case for Change recommended downgrading dozens of general hospitals and providing the majority of their treatments in cheaper-to-run neighbourhood health centres.
Despite £15million being spent on promoting the consultation package across the capital, only 4,000 out of a possible five million people in London responded. In Islington, fewer than 200 people – believed to be mainly health professionals as opposed to patients – replied and just 51 per cent of those gave their approval for the package as a whole.
Professor John Lister, author of NHS on the Brink, a recent report from the British Medical Association, described that response as “pitiful” and “wafer thin”, adding: “This ‘mandate’ has since been brandished by NHS London as endorsement for its subsequent proposals.”
Hardly anyone now fighting to save services at the Whittington was even aware of the chance to have a say on the proposals. Following a series of leaked emails to reporters, it has emerged that NHS bosses are now looking at three options for the A&E, including replacing it with a team of GPs who could treat patients suffering minor injuries.
“What is important is that the Case for Change has been proven,” NHS chief executive Rachel Tyndall told about 250 people who packed Archway Methodist Church in November.
But thousands simply do not agree with the bureaucrats. Hundreds have attended mass meetings, thousands have signed petitions and MPs have brought the matter to the attention of Health Minister Mike O’Brien at a full-scale debate in the House of Commons.
The Highgate Society, with 1,400 members, joined the campaign with a strongly-worded letter this week to Health Secretary Andy Burnham. A mass march and rally will be staged later this month and campaigners are even talking about occupying the hospital.
But it is feared that, while NHS bosses have promised to hold a second public consultation on any major changes at the Whittington, patients will have to change government policy to win.
Zozi Goodman, chairman of the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition, said: “When you speak to everyone about this they are utterly incredulous. The problem is that the idea of a consultation is like something out of Ceausescu’s Romania. But if we keep making representations and exercising our democratic voice I believe we can make them abandon their proposals.”
Two thirds of Whittington’s patients – about 150,000 – arrive through the doors of its casualty department each year. MP Jeremy Corbyn told the House of Commons in November he believed losing A&E would eventually result in total closure of the hospital.
Ms Tyndall, the £144,000-a-year NHS boss tasked with deciding which services will be cut, is paid two days a week as chief executive of North Central London (NCL) sector, which is facing a funding cut of up to £900million.
But NCL, set up in July last year, appears to be operating almost entirely behind closed doors. To date there have been no public meetings and there are no minutes or board papers available. A spokesman for NCL said on Tuesday the information gap was because it was “still developing the options”, adding: “The key meetings haven’t even been scheduled in our diaries yet. This is all in a very early stage.”
Islington Council, which has statutory powers to hold NHS bosses to account, has been caught on the hop. At a meeting in the town hall on Monday, Labour health scrutiny chairman Councillor Martin Klute said: “It is quite ridiculous that we are hearing about this through a leak in the local press.” He added that five health scrutiny committees would join forces to monitor the plans.
Staff at the Whittington do not know where they stand. In a circular this week, hospital chief executive Rob Larkman told them: “I’m afraid we will have to live with uncertainty about the future for some time yet. We must do everything we can to avoid disruption to the important work of the hospital at this time.”
Campaigners are calling on residents to “bring their street” to the protest march from Highbury Fields to the hospital on February 27, assembling at midday.