Members of the public, who had travelled from Coquetdale for the meeting at County Hall in Morpeth, were incredulous and described it as ‘a farce’ as it ended up being a very brief and largely administrative event following last month’s response from the Government on the closure of the facility’s inpatient ward.
The group features five councillors from the health and wellbeing scrutiny committee as well as a representative of Healthwatch Northumberland, ‘the independent champion for people who use health and social-care services’, but there are major concerns from locals as to how their voices will be heard.
And their fears were not assuaged as health bosses were simply given a list of review areas and questions to take away to gather more information and provide responses.
When a member of the public asked if the committee was going to set a date for them to respond, the chairman, Coun Jeff Watson, said: “This is not a public meeting so I won’t answer that.”
The meeting was arranged following the long-awaited response from the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to last year’s referral by the committee. He has asked for an update on progress by the end of January.
The 12-bed inpatient ward at Rothbury Community Hospital was closed – temporarily at first, it was claimed – in September 2016 due to low usage, sparking a community campaign to oppose its loss. The services at the hospital are commissioned by NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and provided by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.
Twelve months on, the board of the CCG voted unanimously to close the ward permanently and reshape the existing services around a health and wellbeing centre at the hospital.
But in October last year, Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee decided to refer the decision to the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
In May this year, the matter was referred by Mr Hunt to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP), a non-departmental public health body, which issued its response last month.
The IRP concluded that there were flaws in the CCG’s engagement and consultation processes and that ‘further action locally is required to agree and implement the proposed health and wellbeing centre, potentially including inpatient beds, at Rothbury Community Hospital’.
Katie Scott, coordinator of the Save Rothbury Community Hospital campaign group (SRCH), described today’s meeting as ‘disgraceful’.
“It gives us no confidence whatsoever in the process,” she said. “The Secretary of State specifically said that local stakeholders, including Healthwatch – not just Healthwatch – should be included in the review.”
Coun Steven Bridgett, ward member for Rothbury, added: “I was just as surprised as the members of the public that had come from Coquetdale that it was, for all intents and purposes, a five-minute meeting.
“The questions could have been forwarded to the CCG in advance so we could get some answers.
“The committee and the chairman, as it’s at his discretion, by not including me as the local member and the Save Rothbury Community Hospital Group, are showing the same contemptuous behaviour that’s been shown here today.”
SRCH says that it has received no response to its latest letter, which put forward an alternative membership for the review group of three councillors who voted to refer the matter to the Secretary of State, three representatives of the CCG and trust, three members of the campaign team and one Healthwatch representative.
Ms Scott said: “We’re incredibly disappointed, disgusted and outraged. We will be having a meeting to discuss our next steps.”
As it stands, the CCG and trust will now be working on providing the information and answers required to deal with six specific areas:
Future use of the site, content of wellbeing centre and review of inpatient beds;
Impact of the temporary closure on patients, families and carers;
The challenge against the fifth test in the NHS England guidance – Planning, assuring and delivering service change for patients (which relates to what must be done where bed numbers are significantly reduced);
Evidence of an equality impact assessment being undertaken prior to public consultation;
The health and wellbeing committee not being consulted prior to the initial temporary closure;
Financial justification of the closure of the inpatient beds.
At the start of the meeting, Coun Watson set out the role of the group, which is to ‘examine the findings of the report of the IRP and letter from the Secretary of State’ and to ‘provide challenge to the CCG/trust and others, and work with Healthwatch to report back to the Secretary of State’.
He added that there is ‘no instruction in the report to rerun the consultation or reopen the beds’, but there is a requirement to engage the community and consider the future for health services.
It is not yet known when the review group will meet again.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service