Here we are again: (from left) Town Hall leader Catherine West, Islington’s two MPs Emily Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn and campaigner Shirley Franklin dig out the Islington Tribune’s campaign banners from 2010.
Below: (top row, from left) David Lammy, Joe Liddane, Frank Dobson and Gary Heather, secretary of Islington Trade Council. Bottom row: Lucy Rees, Dr Yi Mien Koh, Dr Greg Battle and Andy Robbins
Published: 15 February, 2013
by TOM FOOT
HIS voice building into a familiar, angry crescendo, David Lammy spelt out the unanswered fears of three boroughs to the Whittington board members on Tuesday night with a warning that their controversial sell-off plans could ultimately lead to the end of a hospital so many have come to love.
One of several speakers at a packed public meeting at the Archway Methodist Hall, the MP said that once bits of the hospital had been broken away and sold off, the bald truth was that it could become ripe for a closure order.
He said: “If we let this happen, what will happen 18 months from now is that they will come back and argue the hospital is too small and it needs to close, or maybe it should join up with the Royal Free or the UCH.”
His Labour colleague, Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, had already warned in the House of Commons late last week how the changes would weaken the hospital and potentially lay the foundations for the Accident and Emergency department to be closed in the future on the grounds that it could not be sustained by such a small hospital.
Board members reject the view of what could happen at a later stage.
But it is this fear that the hospital is plugging itself into a destructive path which could lead to its complete downfall that is helping to fuel growing condemnation of plans to sell off half its site in Archway, cap the number of births handled by its maternity department and cut 570 posts, including scores of nursing jobs.
As each week passes without a sign that the hospital’s chief executive, its board members or governing body are prepared to change their minds, the numbers now signing up for a protest march through the streets on March 16 are swelling.
More than 500 people crammed into the Methodist Hall, with many more having to make do with listening to proceedings on speakers in other rooms in the building.
Mr Lammy, who was born at the hospital, said it was “unacceptable” and “shameful” that the communities which will be affected had not been consulted about the changes.
He said: “At a time when we are losing our local newspapers – in Tottenham we have lost every single one – can I just thank the Camden New Journal and the Islington Tribune. Without them lifting the lid on this, we wouldn’t have known about this.
“The Whittington is a loved local hospital. We value it. When we talk about the safety that has been achieved at the Whittington it is largely because of the ratio between nurses and patients – it doesn’t make sense to now sack those nurses.”
It was supposed to be an evening when the board members who rubber-stamped the changes in a matter of minutes provided reassurances.
But, despite having the chance to speak first, their words failed to halt a string of angry speeches from MPs and members of the public who lined up to explain their significant worries.
Eleven members of the hospital board attended the meeting to explain the sell-off of £17million of public buildings, a cut of 570 posts – including 200 nurses – and proposals to halve the number of inpatient beds to a threadbare 177.
Joe Liddane, the chairman of the Whittington, apologised for the communication meltdown which led to the news being broken by the Islington Tribune and its sister newspaper, the Camden New Journal, adding: “Many important aspects of care will continue to be provided in the hospital – when people’s needs are urgent or serious. However, there are many conditions that can be better treated in a health centre, a local clinic or people’s homes. This idea is happening world-wide and increasingly across the UK.”
His board colleague, Dr Greg Battle, a Holloway GP who sits on the Whittington board, added: “My patients tell me often they do not want to be admitted to hospitals. They are not seen as safe places to be. If you can get out quicker, and the community services are there to look after you, then that is the right thing to do. It is a good point to say: is there enough capacity in the community? We as GPs are absolutely determined that this work is not coming our way without the right resources.”
Whittington non-executive director Anita Charlesworth said: “We want to sell some of this land to bring the (maternity) facilities up to date. That would allow us to safely deliver 4,000 births a year, around what we do at the moment.
“We know we can definitely deliver that number of women safely. By investing £10m we can deliver women safely in a facility that gives them the care that they want. This is not a cut to the maternity service.”
Supporting the board was Andy Robbins, a consultant at Whittington Hospital.
Chief executive Yi Mien Koh was invited to speak but made no comment at the meeting.
The concept underpinning the dramatic downsizing of the hospital is that some care is better provided in people’s homes and neighbourhood health centres.
But the “care in the community” mantra was met with near universal condemnation from everybody listening.
The meeting heard that the Whittington has the lowest mortality rates in the country and one of the highest nurse-to-patient ratios. This, it was suggested many times, was a reason to keep things the way they are.
Former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, said: “Who’s going to buy the land next to the Whittington that is sold off? It is zoned for healthcare. So what are we going to get? Some thieving rotten rat-bag American healthcare corporation, that financed building a hospital next to the Whittington? We’ve got to keep up the fight.”
Islington South MP Emily Thornberry said she understood the idea of pushing care out of hospitals into the community, but accused the hospital of mishandling the changes.
The hospital’s stated aim of sending staff out into the community was inconsistent with its reduction in the number of nurses, she said, adding: “How can you expect us to trust you?”
Islington Unison rep Andrew Berry talked about patients “yo-yoing” in and out of hospital and called for pressure to be put on the Labour Party and the unions to back a huge demonstration in London. In 2010, the Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition proved too loud to be ignored when plans to shut the A&E were beaten away by a community outcry.
The Tribune and the New Journal were involved in the organisation of a protest march and headed the front of the demonstration with a battle bus. There could be even larger numbers out on March 16, a demonstration which will go ahead once police consent has been agreed.
At Tuesday’s meeting, John Walters, the Pearly King of Finsbury, warned against “dumping the elderly on to local authorities”.
Gary Heather, secretary of Islington Trades Council, added: “What really concerns me is that workers in the hospitals haven’t been treated in the right way. They feared coming to this meeting.”
Whittington Unison rep David Webb said: “The sale of buildings leaves no room for expansion of hospital services on this site. We are a good hospital and provide good service and we want to do that in the future.”
NHS campaigners from across London had met in the House of Commons on Monday and agreed to join each other’s protests, the meeting heard.
The first staff to lose their jobs at the Whittington are 22 medical secretaries following a cost-cutting review by the former car parts company Unipart.
Candy Udwin, chairwoman of the Camden Keep Our NHS Public campaign, said: “Medical secretaries are on strike in south Yorkshire and that is the kind of direct action we need. We can win.
“This government might be nasty but they are weak as well. If they don’t listen, we need direct action. We need occupations and strikes. We need to back a demonstration in London.”
Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition chairwoman Shirley Franklin called for a vote from the meeting about whether the board should withdraw its plans.
All but three people of the 500 at the meeting raised their hands in support of that motion.
Ms Franklin, who said she had used £1,000 from her overdraft to fund the campaign so far, said: “Actually what we need to do is we need to get you guys on the board to join us in the campaign.
“We need to get rid of the Health and Social Care Bill. But we can’t do this on our own. People have to get together to win this. We need a London demonstration and then a national demonstration.”
Closing the meeting, Islington North Jeremy Corbyn MP said: “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. We are in danger of throwing away a very, very valuable service. Let’s not think short term. The NHS was built by people with a vision. Don’t accept it.” Stand up for the NHS.”
THE board of Whittington Hospital put up a disappointing show when they finally faced the public on Tuesday over their plans to sell-off half of the site.
It is true they had entered the lion’s den of an overflowing Methodist Hall in Archway, and that Joe Liddane, chairman of the Board, did accept that the publicity surrounding their plan could have been better handled.
But Mr Liddane then spoiled this by claiming that the sell-off hadn’t been kept deliberately quiet. Board meetings are open to the public, he said. In fact, there was neither a presentation nor a discussion among members when the proposal went before them under the heading ‘Capital Estates Strategy.’ It was simply described as a ‘great piece of work’ before members approved it.
On Tuesday Mr Liddane promised that the public would be able to hear plenty of ‘explanations’ about the plan.
But, as a woman in the audience pointed out, ‘explanations’ are not the same as ‘consultation’.
Here lies the heart of public resentment – a sense of complete exclusion from any form of decision making.
Quite clearly, a plan of this magnitude should have been aired publicly, allowing several weeks of consultation and discussion for an appraisal of the Board’s proposals. To compound this sorry tale there have been bizarre claims by the hospital.
Firstly, its chief executive Dr Yi Mien Koh said she had entered talks with Islington Council to build housing on the site when, in fact, this was quickly demolished by the Town Hall. Anyway, this would be impossible as the site is designated for health care.
There was the claim that Haringey Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone “endorsed” the plans. She didn’t.
We accept that running a hospital is a difficult business. Government after government imposes new management structures and targets; the public always want more; there is pressure from the top for less, and promises of more support in exchange for ill-conceived semi-private ventures such as PFI that often bring in their wake crippling costs. The annual management charges arising out of Whittington’s PFI alone run into £7million – four per cent of the Trust’s income.
At times the meeting descended – perhaps understandably – into a shouting match. But it is not too late for the Board to win back the trust of the people.
Managers and clinicians should muster the courage to stop slavishly following an ever-changing government whim. Let the Board accept it’s made a false start, withdraw or pause the scheme, and involve the public in a new strategy.