Campaigning GP mulls legal action over A&E cut-back

A GP who led a campaign to save a London A&E department is considering legal action after the DH announced the unit would be downsized.

Dr Louise Irvine said legal action could follow the decision to downgrade Lewisham hospital's A&E unit (Photo: Jason Heath Lancy)
Dr Louise Irvine said legal action could follow the decision to downgrade Lewisham hospital's A&E unit (Photo: Jason Heath Lancy)

Lewisham GP Dr Louise Irvine said links between local GPs and hospitals south east London would be thrown 'asunder' by the downgrading of Lewisham hospital's A&E and maternity services departments.

The announcement was made as health secretary Jeremy Hunt ruled that nearby South London Healthcare NHS Trust will be dissolved and its three hospitals taken over by neighbouring trusts. The trust has suffered financial problems and is losing over £1m a week, with debts of £200m expected by the end of 2013.

It follows a review into NHS care in south east London.

Dr Irvine, who led the 'Save Lewisham Hospital' campaign, has vowed to continue her fight to save the two hospital departments in their entirety. She said her group could launch a legal challenge against the DH's decision.

She warned: ‘250,000 angry people don’t just melt away.'

'Much less than we hoped for'
Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, Mr Hunt said the A&E unit at Lewisham Hospital will be downsized into a smaller, non-admitting urgent care service able to see three-quarters of the usual number of patients.

Lewisham hospital’s consultant-led maternity unit will be replaced by midwife-led unit, which will be linked to other midwifery units in the area.

Dr Irvine warned that the changes would not benefit local patients and could damage relationships between GPs and their local hospital.

She said: ‘A smaller A&E is just an urgent care unit dressed up in different language. This much less than we hoped for.

‘This could lead to the closure of medical, surgical and paediatric emergency wards. We have got a whole network of relationships [with hospital doctors] which have started to show results. All of that is going to be thrown asunder.’

She added that the midwife-led maternity unit would not meets the need to the local, population because it would not be able to care for first-time mothers.

Announcing his decision, Mr Hunt said: ‘What is in the clinical interests of patients in south east London has been at the heart of my decision-making process, and as a result I have followed clinical advice to keep open the A&E in Lewisham.

‘However, some changes need to be made so that money is spent on patient care rather than servicing historic debt. The decisions I have taken today will ensure that and that patients in south east London will be able to rely on the NHS for years to come.’

A special administrator was appointed in July last year after failed attempts to solve financial problems at South London Healthcare NHS Trust. His recommendations, which also looked at wider NHS care in south east London, included closing Lewisham hospital's A&E department.

In his speech, Jeremy Hunt accepted the administrator's recommendations to dissolve the trust and allow its three hospitals to be taken over by neighbouring trusts. But he decided not to close Lewisham Hospital's A&E unit after the public campaign 'highlighted just how important it is to the local community'.

Mr Hunt said: 'I respect and recognise the sense of unfairness that people feel because their hospital has been caught up in the financial problems of its neighbour. I also understand the very real concerns about how any changes could affect access to vital health services.'

The three South London Healthcare NHS Trust hospitals must also make £74.9m in efficiencies, while all vacant or poorly utilised premises will be vacated and sold where possible.

The DH will step in to pay for excess costs of PFI buildings at two hospitals, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Royal Hospitals, and write off the accumulated debt of the Trust so that the new organisations are not saddled with historic debts.

Responding to the announcement, Chris Ham, chief executive of The King’s Fund, said: ‘South London Healthcare NHS Trust has longstanding and serious financial problems so no change is not an option.’

Mike Farrar chief executive of the NHS Confederation said: ‘We need to learn the lessons from this case and others.

'Otherwise we will find ourselves perpetually in a situation of trench warfare, with staff, politicians and patients all coming out in opposition on the streets.’

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