Mixed response at reinstatement of some services at Harbottle Surgery

Campaigners outside Harbottle Surgery.
Campaigners outside Harbottle Surgery.

Determined residents fighting a campaign to save a village surgery in Northumberland have welcomed the reinstatement of some GP and nursing services, but believe the plans do not go far enough and say questions still need to be answered.

In August, communities in the Coquet Valley and Upper Rede Valley were left in shock after NHS England dropped the bombshell news that Harbottle Surgery was closing ‘in the interests of public safety’ at the end of that month. NHS England claimed it was forced to wield the axe after Dr Rina Miah took the sudden decision not to continue with her contract and was unable to provide GP cover for the surgery.

Harbottle Surgery.

Harbottle Surgery.

The announcement, which also affected the site’s satellite clinics at Rothbury Community Hospital and Otterburn Village Hall, prompted a massive public outcry and angry residents pleaded with health chiefs to give the surgery another chance and to reinstate a GP.

Yesterday, NHS England (Cumbria and North East) announced that an agreement has been secured with The Rothbury Practice which, from October 19, will provide some GP and nursing services from the Harbottle practice.

Harbottle will operate as a branch surgery of The Rothbury Practice, so all patients wishing to access appointments will need to live in The Rothbury Practice catchment area and register with the main surgery.

Two half-day GP sessions and two half-day nurse sessions per week will operate from the Harbottle premises, which NHS England says is similar to the previous sessions available to patients there.

Protesters at a public meeting in September following the closure of the surgery.

Protesters at a public meeting in September following the closure of the surgery.

Registration with The Rothbury Practice means patients can access appointments at Rothbury five days a week and late-night appointments until 7.30pm every third Thursday. The main surgery at Rothbury also offers a range of clinics and health assessments.

Patients who do not live within The Rothbury Practice catchment area will need to register with an alternative practice, such as Bellingham. Arrangements have been made for patients who live in the Upper Coquetdale area, who do not live within any other practice boundaries, to register with Rothbury.

The new service will be for an initial period of 12 months, allowing NHS England and Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group to carry out a detailed assessment of local primary-care needs and to consult more widely on longer-term options.

But the news has sparked a mixed response with residents, with many believing that more needs to be done.

Marjorie Common, 85, said: “I think NHS England think they have done well, but they haven’t,” while another resident, who did not want to be named, described the changes as menial and very disappointing.

A spokeswomen representing patients of Harbottle Surgery, on behalf of the campaign to save it, said: “We welcome the return of some provision to Harbottle ahead of the winter and see it as a first stage success for local patients as this was clearly not within the wider plans from the outset.

“But, contrary to what NHS England says, this falls short of what was on offer previously with a 50 per cent reduction in local GP access from four to two half days and an even greater reduction in practice nurse cover.

“There is no mention of readily-available local receptionists throughout the week, the booking process or dispensary function, particularly as this latter aspect is already causing additional journeys and delays for patients. We hope that the forthcoming letter from NHS England confirms that prescriptions will be quickly available within Harbottle and do not require collection from Rothbury.”

There is also concern that an increase of patients signing on to The Rothbury Practice will put pressure on the services offered there.

Rothbury county councillor Steven Bridgett said: “I am pleased to hear of the proposed return of some services to the Harbottle Surgery. Even though these proposals represent a small fraction of the service that existed prior to the earlier closure of Harbottle, I am thankful that the partners at the Rothbury Practice have been able to offer some assistance.

“I hope this will give NHS England the time required to fully consult with the patients of the Harbottle Practice in a way that is both legal and meaningful - something they failed to do so far.

“I am worried however, over the lack of a dispensing service from Harbottle, which existed prior to the recent closure and what impact that will have on residents receiving much-needed prescriptions, when there is five-foot of snow on the ground.

“In addition, I do have concerns regarding the impact this proposal will have on waiting times at the Rothbury GP Surgery, where waiting times for non-emergency appointments are currently up to two to three weeks at the moment. As I understand it, the Rothbury Surgery is carrying out this additional service at Harbottle based on it’s current staffing levels.

“Hopefully we will get some much-needed answers and explanations out of NHS England next week when they attend the Northumberland Health and Wellbeing Board at County Hall.

“I genuinely believe the Government has a lot to answer for if this is the level of service it believes is acceptable from a 21st century NHS Service in one of the most remote parts of England.”

Cynthia Atkin, chairman of Healthwatch Northumberland, said: “Healthwatch Northumberland recognises the interim solution which will provide access to some GP services in Harbottle and welcomes the opportunity for communities to be fully involved in the detailed assessment and consultation process in the following 12 months. We will continue to listen to and promote the patients voice in the developing of primary care services.”