Responding to health questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Jeremy Hunt gave an assurance that patients would be fully consulted on STP proposals, which could include service reconfigurations, closures and mergers.
Asked by Tory backbencher Sir Henry Bellingham to ‘confirm that there will be full consultation with different patient groups on the STP', Mr Hunt replied: ‘I can absolutely give that assurance.'
Previously, NHS England, which is running the STP process alongside the five other national NHS bodies, has said that full public consultation would only be required where significant service changes are proposed.
Guidance published earlier this year said: 'A formal public consultation is not needed for every service change. However, it is likely to be needed should substantial changes to the configuration of health services in a local area be proposed, such as hospital closure, or significant service change. It is therefore necessary to include consideration of the need for public consultation, and how this can be undertaken if required, in the overall STP.'
But the DH told GPonline Mr Hunt’s comments were in line with NHS England guidance.
A report by the King’s Fund thinktank on Monday warned that frontline NHS staff and patients had been 'largely absent’ from the STP process so far. GPs and health campaigners have complained about the lack of transparency around the plans.
Primary care minister David Mowat told the RCGP annual conference last month that STPs would be blocked if they are opposed by a consensus of GPs. However the DH and NHS England yet to confirm the process by which plans could be blocked.
Draft STPs published so far include plans in Somerset which will see GP numbers fall by 18% with practices expected to merge to form more sustainable organisations.
A survey by the Health Service Journal found almost half of NHS organisations are drawing up plans to cut hospital beds, while a third intend to close A&E departments. Guidance on patient involvement issued by NHS England in September said that while ongoing engagement with patient groups was essential throughout the process, the usual legal obligations to involve or consult on changes to services apply to STPs.
‘A formal public consultation is not needed for every service change’, the guidance said. ‘However, it is likely to be needed should substantial changes to the configuration of health services in a local area be proposed, such as hospital closure, or significant service change. ‘It is therefore necessary to include consideration of the need for public consultation, and how this can be undertaken if required, in the overall STP.’
A DH spokeswoman said Jeremy Hunt’s comments were ‘in line with NHS England’s guidance on engagement’.
‘We expect all local leaders to be talking to the public and stakeholders regularly and it is vital that people are able to shape the future of their local services,' she said.