There will be no decision on the future of Rothbury Community Hospital until late summer to allow for ‘meaningful community engagement’ to take place.
A packed council chamber at County Hall in Morpeth this afternoon (Wednesday, January 23) heard an update from the NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which commissions services at the hospital, as to what happens next.
The special meeting of Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee took place to enable members to agree an interim response to the Health Secretary.
This was because upon announcing in November that more work needed to be done locally on the next steps, following the closure of the site’s 12 inpatient beds, Secretary of State Matt Hancock called for an update on progress by the end of this month.
But, as the CCG’s senior commissioning manager, Rachel Mitcheson, said: “It’s very much a point in time on a journey we are going on.”
It follows the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP), a non-departmental public health body, concluding 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’.
And while Coquetdale residents in attendance remain sceptical, the CCG’s accountable officer, Vanessa Bainbridge, confirmed: “The opening of the beds is a consideration.”
The CCG set out a number of general proposals as to what kind of additional services could be provided in a health and wellbeing centre at the hospital, but accepts that this needs to be based on input from the community.
The proposal is to work in small focus groups in the coming weeks and months, with the likes of the Save Rothbury Community Hospital (SRCH) campaign group, Healthwatch Northumberland, county and parish councillors, the patient participation group and other local people and groups.
These groups will visit local services, review the latest data and look at national examples of best practice, it is suggested.
This work is to start soon and run until June, while the CCG is also to commission an independent review of its data this month. This will enable the CCG’s governing body to make a decision in the late summer.
Proper engagement does take time, but based on this time-scale, even if the inpatient beds were to be reopened, three years will have gone by since the ward was first closed – temporarily at first.
The permanent closure was agreed 12 months later before the decision was referred to the Health Secretary in October 2017, with the wait for a response lasting another year.
Earlier in the meeting, Katie Scott, SRCH coordinator, who had been given a 10-minute slot to speak, said that it was pointless to comment on the latest information from the CCG before hearing it.
“Besides the issue of the new information, the 10 minutes allowed today to address all of the issues relating to, and arising from, the continued suspension of the use of all of the beds at Rothbury Hospital, is clearly nowhere near enough time.
“Moreover, we want you to know that we, and those we represent, are really disappointed in how we feel we have been treated. We believe that in the interest of natural justice it is only right that we, the campaign team, has the same access to information as the committee does.”
Rothbury’s ward councillor, Coun Steven Bridgett, expressed his anger that he and the campaign group had not been involved in the process up to this point, with meetings in private taking place between the council working group and NHS representatives.
“I’m shocked at the way this exercise is being carried out,” he said. “In my opinion, the bias to the CCG and healthcare trust that’s been clearly visible is absolutely shocking.
“My area has an ageing population and extremely poor public transport links, particularly as you travel further west, so I would urge the committee to hold future meetings in Rothbury and in the evenings when the majority of the population who work can attend.”
The idea that the community felt it was being ignored was also highlighted by Derry Nugent, the project coordinator for Healthwatch Northumberland, which is the independent champion for people using health and social-care services.
Based on all of the feedback collected by Healthwatch during this process, she said: “The strongest and most consistent theme is for the views and experiences of residents to be listened to.”
After the meeting, Ms Bainbridge said: “At today’s meeting, the CCG provided responses to the questions raised by the review group who are considering the findings of the IRP and informed them of our intentions going forward.
“We will continue to work closely with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to review the latest data and consider all the potential options available to us, including reopening the beds.
“We will also work closely with the local community, including the local councillor, parish councils, the campaign group, Healthwatch Northumberland and other interested local groups to explore these options.
“While a new formal consultation will not be launched, an engagement programme will be conducted over the coming months. Further details will be shared as soon as they are available.
“We hope to be in a position to inform the review group of our decision by late summer 2019. During this time, the inpatient ward will remain closed.”