The fight to save the NHS returns to its birthplace


As the NHS turns 65 today, a fight for its very survival is shaping up in its birthplace - Trafford General Hospital.
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Guddi Singh
5 July 2013
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Save Trafford GeneralKicking and screaming in the small northern borough of Trafford, 65 years ago on July 5th, the NHS was born. Facing a war-torn world of inequality and poverty Aneurin Bevan had to overcome massive opposition to create a free health service in 1948. As he whispered into the ear of the first ever NHS patient, 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, it was “the most civilised step any country had ever taken.”

Today, the people of Trafford face a similar world: one where the rich get richer in the face of economic crisis. But instead of Bevan and Beveridge there is only Cameron and Clegg, as the Coalition government relentlessly unpicks the Welfare State. And it is in this context that Trafford General Hospital (TGH) - the birthplace of the NHS - finds itself fighting for survival. 

The fate of Trafford General has hung in the balance since 2011. The risk at that time was privatisation, but the threat quickly turned to its very existence, with proposals recommending the downgrading and closure of Trafford’s A&E unit, the loss of intensive care, emergency surgery and children’s services. In response, Save Trafford General (STG) - a group of local patients and campaigners - mounted a counterattack of growing momentum. 

Galvanizing local politicians, the campaigning group have managed to delay the decision to close Trafford General - which was due to happen with the passing of the Health and Social Care Act on April 1st. Thanks to popular demand, the Manchester and Trafford Joint Health Scrutiny Committee (JHSC) elected to refer the ‘New Health Deal for Trafford’, which details the planned closures, to the Secretary of State for Health in February - an unprecedented move.

As a result, Jeremy Hunt himself will decide the future of the hospital - and thus the impact it will have on the 38,000 patients who attended TGH’s A&E last year. This will pile the pressure on an already vulnerable looking Hunt, who is rapidly losing the confidence of those in the health service.

April saw record numbers of patients admitted through the hospital’s closure-threatened A&E unit – occupying more hospital beds than ever before. Matthew Finnegan, Chair of STG said: “Ironically, patients are being admitted through our busy A&E unit which is threatened with closure by health bosses, because they claim it is under-used! It makes a mockery of claims that they can afford to shut A&E and everyone can then be treated in the community. Services are simply not available in the community.”

The campaign’s success to date is partly due to the sheer weight of the argument for keeping Trafford General open. The benchmark for any change is whether it improves the health of people in Trafford. If the hospital closes, campaigners argue, this will not be the case. In their letter to Jeremy Hunt, Councillors on the Manchester and Trafford Scrutiny Committee expressed concerns that the changes represented “a substantial variation in health services which are not in the interests of the health service or patients of Trafford and Manchester”. They fear there would be a dramatic knock-on effect for the local population. Waiting lists and queues for treatment at the neighbouring Wythenshawe hospital, Manchester Central and Salford Royal would lengthen and longer journey times to hospital will result in delays in receiving life-saving treatment. Jo Harding, campaign coordinator for Save Trafford General, said: "When A&E departments close, it places an impact on other hospitals, so we really believe that it will have an impact on patient care."

The campaign has had massive local support. In a poll asking: “Do you support the campaign to save A&E, ICU, children's services and acute surgery at Trafford General Hospital?” 92% of the 1133 respondents said yes. The hospital has also avoided the temptation to be pitted against other neighbouring hospitals in fighting for their survival. Greater Manchester hospitals under pressure have been facing pressure have been supporting each other. “Trafford, Wigan, Bolton - we’re all in this together,” says Finnegan. “Other campaigns could benefit from this approach.”

But as with all coming of age processes, this one hasn’t been easy, and campaigners have had to confront secrecy, lies and a climate of fear.

The hospital leadership were slow to admit the intention to downgrade from the outset. The proposals were eventually leaked by the local media rather than by public consultation. Even when information about the changes were made public, they came in the form of a misleading article in Trafford Talks Health”, a magazine jointly written by NHS Trafford and Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust. Headlined as ‘New Health Deal Proposal Approved’ the article failed to mention that the decision had in fact been referred to the Secretary of State and that no changes to services can occur pending this decision. The information provided to the public, is “biased, partial and inaccurate” says George Devlin, health governor at Trafford General. “Commissioners have given the public in Trafford misleading information and are potentially discouraging people from using the services available at the hospital.” 

The closure is being pushed through on the basis of estimated savings of £14 million. But the neighbouring hospital at Wythenshawe “has insufficient capacity to absorb deflected activity from Trafford General” and would require capital investment of “£14.1m with associated capital charges of £1.1m. Moreover, the increased capacity in A&E would not be available until April 2015.” In other words the projected ‘savings’ are in fact totally wiped out, not to mention a dangerous gap in service provision in the mean time.

Sadly a climate of fear throughout the NHS means local clinicians have been afraid to speak up against the reforms. “Although the media have tried to paint all clinicians with the same brush - as being in favour of this closure - it is simply not the case,” says Finnegan. “We have gained much of our insights from people working there, and they are against what is happening.”

 Despite all the odds, Trafford General still stands. Just like Lewisham, Save Trafford General are showing the country what a small group of well-organized people can do in protecting their local services. And the people of Trafford want to be clear: while the NHS may in its 65th year, for them, it is far from retiring. “The NHS is something to be treasured,” say Finnegan. “That’s why we’re organising a giant birthday party for our NHS on July 5th”.

Kicking things off at 1pm will be a mass gathering at TGH, where people will link arms around the hospital. “It is designed to send a clear message to Government: ‘keep your hands of our hospital and NHS’” says David Acton, Labour Trafford Councillor. This will be followed by a colourful march - including stilt walkers, marching band, balloons and 50′s style fancy dress - to Golden Hill Park in Urmston where the party will begin. “We want this to be a real community celebration for TGH on its 65th birthday,” said Harding. “The giant birthday party will start at 3.30pm so that local children can join in the celebrations after school.” 

So, far from being a retirement party, the NHS’s 65th birthday has become a focal point of praise, gratitude and celebration of what the NHS means for the people.

 The Secretary of State for Health will announce his decision regarding  Trafford General in the next week or so. “It would be extraordinarily cynical of Mr Hunt, if he tried to smuggle through an announcement about the future of TGH after the 65th NHS birthday celebrations” said Finnegan. “What is clear is that what people really value is under threat. But if you want to keep it, you have to fight for it. Through our struggle we want to make it unthinkable for the Secretary of State to close our hospital. And if he does, he does so at his peril. It would send out a resounding message to the rest of the country. If the birthplace of the NHS can be closed, then the NHS is not safe in his hands.”

If you would like to help with the STG campaign, please sign this petition and come along to the birthday party if you can.

You can donate to OurNHS here to help secure the project through to the 2015 general election. Thank you.


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