Jeremy Hunt’s hubristic attempt to asset-strip the National Health Service must be defeated. That starts with halting the demolition of Charing Cross hospital, writes Andy Slaughter MP
The planned demise of Charing Cross hospital, founded 200 years ago next year and now a world-class teaching and specialist hospital with 360 acute beds, would be both a tragedy in itself and a blueprint for hospital trusts around the country to follow in eviscerating the National Health Service.
Five and a half years ago, politicians from across north-west London, then home to nine major emergency hospitals serving two million people, were gathered in Central Hall, Westminster to be told about ‘Shaping a Healthier Future’, the Orwellian name given to plans to close four accident and emergency units and demolish two main hospitals, Ealing and Charing Cross.
Shaping a Healthier Future was the stalking horse for sustainability and transformation plans, which now apply across England. It was premised on two perfectly sound principles: that specialising and centralising disciplines such as renal, cardiac or oncology services can improve outcomes; and that better preventative, primary, community and social care can relieve pressure on acute services and probably save money in the process.
So why are they bitterly opposed by most local politicians – except some Tories – and, in the case of Shaping a Healthier Future, by over 90 per cent of the public? Not because we are Luddites or weaponising the NHS, but because the reality is the NHS is being wrung out, and Jeremy Hunt is leaving it in a condition that is not just under-resourced but dysfunctional.
The promised investment in GP services, social care or public health has not materialised and these services can barely cope with their own demand. Specialisation and consolidation becomes an excuse for closing departments, sites or whole campuses.
This was what was proposed for Charing Cross. In 2012 we were told the whole site would be bulldozed and sold off for private housing, save for a clinic on one corner. A year later to try and assuage the huge local anger and give local Tories an excuse to support the plans we were told a new hospital would be built on the site. This turned out to be a collection of primary care and treatment services one eighth the size of the existing hospital.
Five years on nothing has changed on site, except that, after two other local A&Es closed, waiting times have soared. Last month less than 70 per cent of people were seen within four hours.
Charing Cross still faces the axe, but now not before 2021, probably years beyond that. That is in part a victory for the Save our Hospitals movement, in part a realisation even by the Department of Health that you can’t close a major hospital at a time that it is overflowing with people who need hospital care.
Is this a victory? Not exactly. It has reduced local management to dissembling, rudderless creatures of Hunt’s duplicity. It has demoralised and discouraged brilliant and committed staff – who wants to make their career at a hospital perpetually under threat? It has meant that huge energy has been put into saving the hospital by the Labour council, local people, trade unions and health campaigners – energy that is needed for other battles.
But if we succeed in saving Charing Cross it will not only be a great result for my constituents, it will be a blow against Hunt’s plans for the NHS. Against deskilling, rationing, privatisation and asset stripping.
I remember sitting stunned in the meeting that approved the demolition of a hospital that has cared for my constituents and me throughout our lives, and which is in even greater demand from a growing and aging population. But I also thought at the time, this is so mad, so hubristic that it will not be allowed to happen.
I did not think that we would still be arguing the case five years on: I have a debate this week on Charing Cross in the Commons, Lord Dubs, a Hammersmith resident, hosted one last week in the Lords. Nor did I think the battle would be set to continue well into the next decade. But I did and I do think that decisions as arbitrary and irresponsible as this can be reversed. In Hammersmith, and across England.
Andy Slaughter is the member of parliament for Hammersmith. He tweets at @hammersmithandy
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