Health Secretary Andrew Lansley [below] should have saved the ink when three years ago he signed a petition backing the re-opening of the cardiac and acute medical services at Bridlington Hospital.
Because following his visit in December to the North Yorkshire seaside town it seems pretty clear that he never had any serious intention of keeping his promise, and that his actions were simply based on the political expedience of bolstering support for local Tory MP, Greg Knight.
Such a scenario would in normal circumstances be one the Labour Party might hope to benefit from at the polls. Not so, however, in this case as it was the former governing party who started the run-down nearly a decade ago.
It’s a situation that now leaves Bridlington residents fearing for the future of a hospital they campaigned long and hard for, and which sends those with serious medical problems, and maternity needs, on repeated journey’s back and forth to Scarborough more than twenty miles away.
This lengthy piece looks at events in Bridlington over the last decade.
Bridlington Hospital was officially opened by the Duchess of Gloucester on May 16th 1989 and brought together services from three former hospitals under one roof. The 218 beds on site included 120 for the elderly, who constitute a large part of the local population, 24 for patients with mental health, 14 for maternity and 60 acute for surgery and medicine.
Local people were delighted having campaigned for just such a hospital ever since the NHS was first muted back in the 1940s. To demonstrate their support they raised over the years many thousands of pounds to provide additional equipment for patients and even today the hospital continues to be held in extremely high regard locally.
However in October 2002 residents and Unite members at the hospital were shocked to discover a front page headline in the weekly Bridlington Free Press http://www.bridlingtonfreepress.co.uk that Scarborough and North East Yorkshire Healthcare [SNEY] NHS Trust planned to close the minor injuries unit, citing a lack of staff.
Within days thousands had signed a petition in protest, and a community campaign was launched - www.savebridlingtonhospital.co.uk [BHAG] that Unite Bridlington hospital workers fully supported “in defence of members at the hospital and the people of Bridlington and surrounding areas” said regional officer Terry Cunliffe.
All of which was sufficient to force the Trust to change its plans. Great news all round.
Then on June 19th 2003 the then AMICUS National Health Officer Geoff Whitlow had a high level meeting with Alison Guy, SNEY Chief Executive to “discuss our members concerns about the future of Bridlington and District Hospital and to seek assurances that the Hospital was to develop and improve its services to the public” and at which the Trust promised to consult the union on any changes. In return the union promised to lobby the Government to obtain funds to expand and improve services at Bridlington after it was revealed that the SNEYHT was £11.7 million in debt.
There was therefore great news when in September 2003 the threat of closure first raised in January 2003 to Bridlington Hospital’s maternity unit was lifted following a review of services. Furthermore SNEY agreed to fund improvements that included introducing a birthing pool.
Then in early 2004 it was announced that SNEY had received its biggest ever-funding injection with a 10 million pounds award to allow, amongst other things, for the replacement of coal fired boilers at Bridlington. There would also be the establishment of a digital link between Bridlington and Scarborough Hospitals to build on investment already made into radiology equipment at Bridlington.
Yet within weeks rumours were circulating that there were plans to remove all doctors to Scarborough and re-direct ambulances there, which even though an under pressure Alison Guy denied had workers at the hospital queuing up to join AMICUS in order to defend their jobs and working conditions. [For more details see 21/12/2004 article on SBH fully backed and supported by Amicus the Union at http://savebridlingtonhospital.co.uk
On Monday July 18th 2005 the first protest was held with 100 trade unionists and members of the public participating.
At this Terry Cunliffe made clear the union’s position when he said: ‘Bridlington needs a full-time hospital not a part-time one. Our hospital is being run-down and reduced to a community hospital. Serious cases are being directed to Scarborough, more than 18 miles away along a slow coastal road and people are being sent back to Bridlington for a long recuperation before discharge, resulting in bed blocking.
Amicus [later Unite] wants a fully funded, full time hospital in Bridlington that can provide a full-range of patient care and secure jobs and better working conditions for staff and a future for the hospital.”
Amicus highlighted the refusal of the Chief Executive of Bridlington Hospital to set up a fund to raise money to donate a CT scanner to the hospital as yet more evidence of a deliberate policy to downgrade it to community status, and also called for an urgent up-grade of the Maternity Unit at the hospital.
However on September 26th 2006 came devastating news with the announcement by the new SNEY interim Chief Executive Iain McInnes that Price Waterhouse and Cooper had been employed to make savings of close to £9 million.
At Bridlington it was planned to move the Maternity Services, acute wards and Cardiac Monitoring Unit for heart attack victims to Scarborough, reduce the number of beds, close surgical wards and only keep the minor injuries unit open during day time hours.
Thousands clamoured to sign petitions in protest, over 20,000 signatures being collected in just three weeks. This is equivalent to more than half the residents of Bridlington.
Amicus/Unite members backed the protestors with Terry Cunliffe pointing out that Bridlington Hospital handled 4,000 acute medical conditions each year, more than Scarborough, and that there was a requirement by SNEYHT to consult the public on its plans.
When SNEY did hundreds packed out Bridlington Town Hall in one of the largest meetings ever in the town. Trust members were left in no doubt that they had a fight on their hands. The Hospital Action Group distributed thousands of car stickers. Yet on July 19th 2007 SNEY, who at time were advertising for 2 directors at wages of £75,000 and £70,000 per annum, announced it intended to axe 600 jobs - a third of its workforce across the region - in a bid to save £10 million.
If the Trust felt that might be the end of the matter they were to be mistaken as on October 20th 2007 a protest march attracted over 2,000 people http://www.unitetheunion.com/news__events/2008_archived_press_releases/thousands_turn_out_to_save_bri.aspx at which Unite rep and staff nurse at the hospital Steve Holliday said, “showed what people feel about the hospital. People have to listen now. Health Secretary Alan Johnson is well aware of what is going on and I believe he is listening”
And that certainly appeared to be the case after Johnson moved to park up the historic debt and also ask the Independent Reconfiguration Panel [IRP] to re-examine the proposals of SNEYHT for the hospital including acute medical and cardiac admissions.”
So much so that Flamborough Parish Councillor and Unite rep at the hospital, Franco Villani “was quietly confident that the proposed changes would be reversed. Local campaigners and the union had worked hard to convince the Health Secretary of our case for proper services at Bridlington and I felt that a Labour Party which established the NHS would not let us down.”
See - http://www.unitetheunion.com/news__events/2008_archived_press_releases/union_outrage_at_recommendatio.aspx
No one however was taking any chances. Determined to show that the local town was fully behind their campaign they vowed to organise a massive march on July 26th 2008, only five days before the IRP advice was to be submitted to the Health Secretary. Meanwhile 39,000 people took the time to sign another protest petition that was later handed in at Downing Street.
“We worked tirelessly to get people on the march,” said Franco.
In its’ lead up local people’s concerns were further raised by local newspaper coverage of how one weekend a single nurse had been left in charge of the 30-bed Kent ward at the hospital.
Nevertheless everyone involved was still staggered when over 7,000 people turned out on the march, the largest ever organised in Bridlington. “It was an amazing and emotional experience,” said BHAG Chairman Mick Pilling.
Yet in early September 2008 came news all those involved feared. Alan Johnson had accepted the IRP’s recommendation to transfer cardiac and acute medical services to Scarborough.
Seriously ill patients were to be faced with a 22-mile journey by ambulance along the A165. This can either be congested with holiday traffic in summer or closed from snow and high winds in the winter.
Hardly surprising therefore that despite the Trust’s claims that Bridlington Patients would still continue to get quality care few really believe that to the be case including Dr Alistair Robertson from the Manor House Surgery who said “people will die as a result of the additional time it will take to transport patients to Scarborough rather than to Bridlington Hospital.”
Some of the paramedics staffing the new fleet of ambulances continuously ferrying patients over to Scarborough were also sceptical with one who wished, in order to keep his job, to remain anonymous, saying; “because of the restrictions placed on us patients might not receive the treatment they would expect to get if they were at hospital within a shorter period. As far as paramedics are concerned we know we can’t do as much as doctors. We don’t have the same level of training. In a hospital environment its more clinical and there’s more knowledge in the emergency department. All the paramedics feel under increasing pressure. As an aside running ambulance’s backward and forward to Scarborough can’t be that good for the environment, I thought the aim was to reduce the carbon footprint but that’s not happening with our work. ”
The changes didn’t come cheap as the annual costs to Yorkshire Ambulance Service of maintaining the additional ambulances and 14 extra staff needed to take patients to and from Scarborough was £600,000.
And then there was the cost of the new shuttle bus. According to the Trust it was costing £2,451.39 a week in 2009. Not that it runs through the night as the case last June demonstrates.
* Gary Kane aged 58, was taken late one night in June 2010 by ambulance from Bridlington to Scarborough Hospital after losing all coordination in his left arm, experiencing head pains and having trouble speaking clearly.
Classic stroke symptoms for a man with a previous record of heart trouble, but whose wife, having been told there were no beds available, was asked to collect and transport him back home at 4.30am.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Gary’s wife Gloria “as they’ve spent millions nationally on publicity about how to recognise a stroke. Also I told the doctor my husband had come up from Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire just that day after they’d cancelled a heart operation but he wouldn’t listen as he just seemed so rushed.”
Yet eight hours later an unwell Gary Kane was being rushed by ambulance back to Scarborough hospital where it was confirmed he’d experienced a stroke the previous evening.
Hardly surprising therefore that with everything that had gone on at Bridlington, including a ward for mental health needs being moved out, that Unite’s health national officer, Karen Reay said it was “a disaster for the citizens of Bridlington who deserve much better.”
As such no one was celebrating the new services that were moved on to the site because in the cases of the new renal dialysis unit and health centre private companies are running them.
With Labour seemingly oblivious to local people’s needs the Conservatives stepped in with their support. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley attended the march in 2008, and he and local MP Greg Knight [below] both signed the petition to retain the cardiac monitoring unit and acute medical services in Bridlington. It was a position welcomed even by long time Labour supporter Villani and confirmed by Knight in a letter dated June 24th 2009.
This stated that we ‘need a fully functioning general hospital in Bridlington and not just, as this government appears to think, a glorified day centre and rest home. The Shadow Health Secretary Mr Lansley has made it clear to me that if he was in office, he would save the services at Bridlington Hospital. I would therefore expect a future Conservative government to return all services to Bridlington hospital.’
That’s not proved to be the case now the Conservatives have formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Local life-long Tory and Parish Councillor May Sexton was on the phone almost immediately to find out when Lansley would be returning to the town and getting things moving. Although it took till the last month of 2010 she was still confident.
Especially as there were strong rumours that in line with the Government’s overhaul of the NHS - whereby consortiums of GPs will take over the commissioning of up to £80 billion of healthcare - that just such a consortium was being established by Dr Alan Francis of the Manor House practice to examine how to bring back the cardiac and acute monitoring services.
BHAG Chairman Mick Pilling was not so confident saying: “ I am sure they can bring back the equipment. But I am worried that with many staff having either moved to Scarborough or out of the area altogether it will prove impossible to recruit the nurses and specialist staff needed to re-open the wards. I am led to believe around a hundred staff will be needed, a considerable figure.”
In the event Lansley’s visit proved to be ‘little more’ than a fact-finding mission. “At a time of stringent public sector cuts he may as well have saved his travel costs” said one of those who met him.
True there were warm words with Lansley saying: “One of the things I can help to do is give people a sense of trust” but yet when it came to action the struggle of local residents and hospital workers was given short thrift when he said he wasn’t considering returning the lost services as: “Things have moved on since 2008. Money has now been invested in the new midwifery-led unit in Scarborough. Technology has advanced and it is now also recognised that the safest place for cardiac patients is not in a small hospital,” a point disputed by hospital campaigners nationally.
So with the cardiac monitoring unit and acute medical services permanently closed at Bridlington Hospital the result is that ambulances will continue to be pushed to their limits.
Yet the visit by the health secretary came only weeks after it took ambulances up to an hour to arrive at a house fire in Bridlington. The result? Three children all aged less than nine years of age, dead. Mick Pilling said he wouldn’t like to comment on the incident but did say, “For the last eight years the ambulance service has been stretched to its limits. Its not just a matter of delivering patients, when they arrive at Scarborough there’s often a queue and this can result in a delay in their future availability as they wait to book patients.”
A Yorkshire Ambulance Service [YAS] paramedic, who did not want to use his name, agreed with Mick Pilling saying “there is no doubt that the travelling to Scarborough does impact on response times, although in this case I understand the delay was more to do with the seriousness of the situation not being relayed to crews already busy on less serious incidents.”
The assistant director of accident and emergency operations for YAS, Paul Mudd, defended the service telling the local newspaper “We would like to reassure members of the public that in this case, and as with any incident, we dispatched the nearest available ambulance crews to the scene."