Save St. Heliers

Georgia Lewis 

Image © lydia_shiningbrightly

I feel like a parent with two incessantly fighting children. I just want to yell at them both: “I don’t care who started it, I just want you to work it all out, get along and stop blaming each other!”

Except I am not yelling at kids. I am yelling at the Conservative and Labour parties in my London borough of Merton. And the wrangling is not over a toy or who pulled whose hair first. It is about the now-very-likely closure of the accident and emergency and maternity units at St Helier’s Hospital in south-west London.

The curiously named “Better Service, Better Value” (BSBV) team has been brought in to find ways to improve health services in south-west London. This is a team of doctors from clinics and hospitals in the area as well as “patient representatives”. People started to sit up
and take notice when it came to everyone’s attention that they were looking to close a maternity and A&E unit in either St Heliers,
Kingston, Tooting or Croydon University hospital. And now the recommendation has come out – St Heliers should lose these services.
This is in an area where A&E admissions are up 3% and 6% more babies were born there last year and this figure is not dropping any time soon. There might be a “planned care centre” for either St Heliers or Croydon University hospital.

Never mind that the maternity unit has just spent £3 million on an upgrade or that St Heliers has a further £219 million of ringfenced
funding introduced under Labour and maintained under the Conservatives, it looks like that money may now be spent on
downgrading services. Although given the vagueness of the information provided by BSV, we can’t be sure how much that will cost. Or whether there will be job losses. And if so, how many? 

Nor is there any guarantee that by losing an A&E, the remaining units won’t be overburdened. A couple of weeks ago, I tripped over and hit my head. I looked on the NHS site and it told me the nearest walk-in clinic was at St George’s Tooting so I went there rather than A&E at St Heliers. Unfortunately, the website hadn’t been updated – the walk-in clinic at St George’s is no more, so I had to go to the regular A&E. It wasn’t too bad. After blood tests and a scan, I was in and out in about three hours. The staff were great, I didn’t get a big US-style bill and it was a triumph of the NHS. But if there is to be one less A&E in the borough, it could be a different story next time.

I do believe both the Conservative and Labour councillors in my borough would like to see St Helier continue to provide the current
level of care. I don’t believe it behooves anyone from either party to turn it into a slanging match as to who funded what and when, who cut what and when. Right now, none of that matters. What matters is what can be done to save St Heliers. And is a bipartisan approach possible? Can we see a joint appeal to all local MPs, to the newly minted and truly awful choice for Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, from all sides of politics in the borough of Merton? I realise this is a decision now in the hands of the local NHS trust but if the Conservatives who want to save St Heliers can lobby him, that would be a good thing. Indeed, the Conservative MP for neighbouring Wimbledon, Stephen Hammond, wrote a letter to former Health Secretary Andrew lansley urging him to visit St Heliers and see the good work being done there. Here’s hoping he sends the same letter to Jeremy Hunt.

Curiously, after a few ranty Tweets about it all under the #SaveStHelier hashtag, I attracted the attention of local Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh and local Conservative councillor Suzanne Evans – although I was ignored by local Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow. Bizarrely, Siobhain McDonagh invited me to an “Olympics fayre” to have my say on the possible changes. This struck me as a weird place for a consultation, all the advertising material, apart from offering free health MOTs, was all about celebrating Team GB and nothing to do with asking hard questions of the BSBV team. Since then, I’ve received a screaming red flyer under my front door from the local Labour party with plenty of blame directed at the Conservatives for the possible neutering of St Heliers but not really offering any solutions.

But Suzanne Evans did indeed organise a public consultation with representatives from the hospital and BSBV on board.

It was a lively session, there were plenty of angry people and plenty of hard questions asked. When the statistic that 40% of A&E admittances are unnecessary was quoted, I asked if there was going to be a public awareness campaign. I was told a triage-style system is being trialled at Croydon University hospital. That didn’t really answer my question and Suzanne Evans quite rightly pointed out that shutting St Helier’s A&E without any sort of drive to get unnecessary admissions down was putting the cart before the horse.

We also found out that if St Heliers loses its neonatal intensive care unit and the remaining one at St George’s Tooting is full, parents
will have to take their sick babies to the next nearest unit. Which is in Southampton.

What was also interesting about the consultation was that despite a largely older audience, a BBSV member told us to download information from their website and to get in touch via “all sorts of sexy ways” such as Twitter. Now, I found out about the meeting via Twitter, but given that hardly anyone who signed the petition included an email address, I am guessing there weren’t a whole lot of active tweeters in the crowd. As an afterthought, she mentioned that you could also write a letter – whether she reads the letter is another matter, of course.

Next up, there’s a rally this Saturday for the hospital and another consultation in early October. I understand Stephen Hammond will be present – here’s hoping that is still the case now he is the new Minister for Transport. It was disappointing that there weren’t any
MPs present at the other consultation. If the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs turned up, that would at least give me some hope that the focus of the consultation can move away from petty party politics and focus on what really matters – the guarantee that people in south-west London won’t be deprived of essential health services.

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