A leading politician is 'optimistic about the potential to enhance services for local people', following the sudden closure of a Northumberland surgery in the summer.
The communities in the Coquet Valley and Upper Rede Valley were rocked in August when NHS England made the shock announcement that Harbottle Surgery would be shutting at the end of that month.
NHS England said it was forced to act after Dr Rina Miah took the sudden decision not to continue with her contract and was unable to provide GP cover for the surgery. The news, which also affected the site’s satellite clinics at Rothbury Community Hospital and Otterburn Village Hall, sparked anger.
Campaigners scored a slight victory at the end of September when NHS England announced that The Rothbury Practice would provide some GP and nursing services from Harbottle – a move which came into effect in October.
Now, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt has commented on the situation, saying that NHS England and the Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) are working to ensure 'appropriate and sustainable' primary-care services for residents in the area.
Responding to a letter from Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan about the surgery, he wrote: 'I recognise that the local geography will raise particular issues and you will want to ensure appropriate provision in the valley.The closure of the practice does, however, offer an opportunity to consider the future provision of services in Harbottle and the requirements of the local community.
'I am optimistic about the potential to enhance services for local people, including through taking account of the different challenges facing rural communities like yours. This will include the workforce, the availability of new services and technologies and the possibility of closer integration with neighbouring services. Please be assured that NHS England and the CCG are working to ensure that appropriate and sustainable primary-care services are accessible to the people of Harbottle'.
Explaining the reasons for the sudden closure at the end of August, Mr Hunt wrote: 'I understand that since July, NHS England has held a number of meetings with the Harbottle practice during which the GP indicated that she wished to terminate her contract with NHS England.
'Contract holders are required to give the maximum notice possible - in this case six months - before terminating a contract, to cause as little disruption to services as possible and to ensure that patients continue to receive the care they need.
'After receiving notification from the contract holder, NHS England was reviewing options for maintaining and improving the local GP offer, including finding a replacement contract.
'However, after a further meeting in August, NHS England became aware that there had been occasions in recent weeks where the practice had been unable to provide the range of services required under its contract, including essential services.
'For reasons of patients safety, NHS England was unwilling to continue to commission a service which was no longer able to guarantee the essential services which all NHS patients are entitled to expect, and therefore decided to terminate the contract. The decision was taken in line with the NHS regulations covering the contract which the practice held.
'Under normal circumstances, practices which are experiencing difficulty are able to alert the local commissioning team and CCG in sufficient time for them to plan for interim and longer-term solutions for their patients. Unfortunately, the immediacy of the situation limited the opportunity to do so in this case'.
He adds that NHS England has undertaken a series of actions to ensure that the practice's patients are able to continue to access primary healthcare services, including the provision of some services at the Harbottle surgery.
He states that 'along with the Northumberland CCG, NHS England is considering the long-term future for the delivery of primary-care services in Harbottle. A full service review will be undertaken and the views of patients and other stakeholders will be sought'.
Anne-Marie said: "As I understand it, the interim measures are holding up quite well, but I am keen to ensure NHS England finds a long-term solution that keeps the surgery open permanently."
She urged patients to contact her if problems arise with the temporary measures.