If you want to keep your community hospital, you must stay vigilant

Back in August of last year, we published an article by Mike Sheaff on NHS Property Services (NHSPS) and its aggressive policy on rents charged and eviction of tenants (GPs etc!) from NHSPS-owned properties. We have also carried a number of press releases from the campaigning body Save our Hospital Services (SOHS), including their fight to keep hospitals in Torbay, South Devon and North Devon open.

On 21 March, East Devon District Council’s strategic planning committee considered an urban capacity study. It will not surprise any of those who have been involved in campaigns to save local hospital beds to see Axminster and Seaton community hospitals (and Sidmouth health centre) on the list of potential sites for housing developments. Independent Devon county councillor Martin Shaw (standing for re-election) wrote this:

The news this week that Seaton Community Hospital is on a list of sites that could be developed – producing 14 new houses – does not mean that closure is imminent. Planning officers were compiling a list of possible sites and there is currently no specific proposal.

However, the list is a salutary reminder that the hospital’s future is not safe. Indeed, the papers note that “NHS property services have submitted the community hospital and have advised that there may be potential to make more effective use of the site, subject to health commissioning requirements”.

NHS Property Services is the legal owner of the hospital, a company which the Government set up to maximise use of and revenue from NHS assets.

NHSPS actually specified that “approximately 50 per cent of the site may be released”, and the site was considered by planners “on the basis that there would be no loss of health services resulting from any such reconfiguration”.

Big loss of health services

In fact, a big “loss of health services” has already happened, in 2017, when the beds were closed after the last-minute, never-properly-explained decision to save the beds in Sidmouth instead. The hospital was 38 per cent empty until Covid-19 vaccinations began in December.

So what they’re talking about is a further loss of services – all the clinics and the physiotherapy suite which still continue in the hospital. And what they probably mean is that services would continue – just not in Seaton Hospital. Local people would probably have to get in their cars and drive to Sidmouth, or Axminster, or Exeter, or wherever clinics were still carried on.

Fine, you might think – except that one Seaton household in every six doesn’t have a car. And many of the people who most need health care are the people who don’t have access to one – the elderly and infirm (especially women), and mothers with young children. 43 per cent of Seaton’s population are now over 65 – the same as in Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton. We are one of the most elderly communities in England.

How on earth could NHS planners think that this town can afford to lose its hospital? The long reach of that fateful 2017 decision is apparent. Sidmouth Hospital was not put forward for development by NHS PS.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the NHS needs more – not fewer – beds, clinics, and, above all, nurses and doctors. In some parts of the country last year, people over 60 or 70 were just not sent to hospital where their lives could have been saved. In the next pandemic that could be us. All the more reason for the Seaton area community to rally again, to keep our hospital, which we paid for, for the future.

Devon has lost 493 community hospital beds since 2010 (64 per cent of the total), contributing to an overall 12 per cent loss of in-patient hospital beds across the county. At the same time the population of Devon has risen by 8 per cent and the number of elderly residents has risen by 23 per cent. Only 11 hospitals have any beds left. Fifteen have been re-designated health ‘hubs’. These offer a range of clinics, but have lost beds and clinical services such as surgery, diagnostics, x-ray, urgent care and minor injury units. Some of these services have been ‘rationalised’ to larger hospitals, creating significant travel problems for patients. Some, such as out-of-hours urgent care, have been passed to primary care providers (e.g. Devon Doctors, which currently ‘requires urgent improvement’).

The message is clear – no matter what Johnson, Hancock et al say about the NHS, you can be sure of something…if there is a way to extract money out the NHS, they will. They may keep the brand, but anything that can be monetised, commercialised or realised almost certainly will. Stay vigilant and follow SOHS. Your support will almost certainly be needed in the pushback against the dismantling of local services.