Following the decision by health chiefs, campaigners were hoping that Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee would hand them a lifeline by saying that the relocation to Wansbeck General Hospital, in Ashington, represented a ‘substantial variation in service’ and therefore required a full public consultation.
This is what has been called for all along by the Whalton Unit Campaign, which collected more than 2,000 names on a petition, while 500 letters were written to Morpeth’s three county councillors calling on them to back their request for a consultation.
But despite concerns at Tuesday’s (November 5) meeting about whether there had been sufficient engagement with the public, the committee members accepted that it wasn’t a substantial variation, particularly given that only some of the patients came from the Morpeth area and that those in the south-east of the county would be better off in terms of travel.
The campaign group was ‘very disappointed and surprised that we were denied the opportunity for a full public consultation’, claiming that ‘some people were mistrustful about the real reasons why the Whalton Unit was moving’ and this mistrust could have been removed if their request had been granted.
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The committee’s decision followed the recent meeting of the governing body of NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), where it agreed with the proposals of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to make the relocation of the facility to Wansbeck permanent.
This decision was made primarily on the grounds of improved patient safety and better staffing since its temporary move last December, while additional recommendations have been put in place to continue the free transport service for friends and family and to develop the provision of palliative care in Morpeth itself.
At the committee meeting, Barbara Ross, from the campaign group, emphasised again the loss of privacy and dignity for those receiving palliative care, given that the Morpeth-based Whalton Unit was entirely made up of private rooms, but is now in a more traditional ward set-up.
However, the committee heard that in the past 16 months, just six of the patients at the unit from a Morpeth postcode were admitted for palliative care, while the trust is looking to improve the ward environment at Wansbeck.
There is strong clinical support for ward beds as well, with the number of falls at the Whalton Unit dropping significantly since its move, although it is accepted that single rooms have their place as well and more are planned as part of wider changes at the trust’s sites.
Following a series of presentations and a lengthy period of questions, the committee chairman, Coun Jeff Watson, said: “It’s a transfer and I don’t think it will adversely affect Northumberland patients as a whole.”
Coun Trevor Cessford added: “I can’t disagree, but we need to have a check in place for all the commitments.”
But Coun Liz Simpson said: “I still think it needs a wider engagement with the public, given the number of people in Morpeth who didn’t respond.”
Coun Kath Nisbet added: “I think it needs to go to the wider public.”
Meanwhile, Coun Les Bowman said: “I have got question marks over the palliative care. I think it’s an important asset, I know it’s mainly rehabilitation but we do have to bear in mind palliative care. People do have the right to die in dignity.”
Initially, the committee voted by three votes to two that it was a substantial variation, but following further discussion, Couns Simpson and Nisbet accepted that it wasn’t, although they continued to be dissatisfied with the level of engagement with the public.
It was agreed that further engagement would take place and be reported back to the committee alongside the updates on how the other recommendations are being implemented.
After the meeting, Coun Richard Wearmouth, representing Morpeth’s three county councillors, said: “The services provided by the Whalton Unit are highly valued and we, together with members of the town council, have throughout the review process strongly highlighted that the standard of care is of paramount importance.
“The CCG and the NHS trust outlined a series of proposals including continued free travel for relatives, additional private rooms, alternative arrangements for patients in end-of-life care to allow them to be closer to family as part of the relocation of the unit.
“These proposals are all things that we and others challenged the CCG to reflect and which we will be ensuring they enact given the decision that the trust has chosen to make.”
A statement from the campaigners said: “The Whalton Unit Campaign Group is very disappointed and surprised that we were denied the opportunity for a full public consultation by the health and wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee.
“It was quite clear to us from the strength of public support behind us including the 2,000 people who signed our petition and the 500 people who wrote to their councillors, that the loss of the Whalton Unit to Morpeth is significant and substantial.
“It was also clear from the public engagement that people are very worried about the loss of a facility to deliver palliative care, travel, inconvenience and a loss of privacy and dignity.
“We feel that it is both unfair and unjust that the people of Morpeth were denied a full public consultation, which was granted in the case of Rothbury, and that we should have had parity of esteem.
“We would like to thank everyone who gave up their time to speak to the campaign group, who attended engagement events or signed our petition.
“We felt that if we had had the support of our local county councillors then we would have been successful. We would still like them to explain why they were against the idea of allowing the people of Morpeth to have a full public consultation.”
Responding on behalf of the NHS organisations, Dr Graham Syers, clinical director of primary care at the CCG, said: “Our governing body firmly believed that due to the improvements in patient care that have resulted from transferring the Whalton Unit to Wansbeck hospital that it should remain in the new location and we are pleased that our decision has been backed by the health and wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee.
“We would like to reiterate our thanks to the campaign group and members of the community for their contributions throughout this process and, while this decision is not what they wanted to hear, we are particularly grateful for their input during the engagement which replicated what a full public consultation would look like.
“Working closely with the trust, we will now press ahead with joint plans to improve care in the Morpeth community and in people’s own homes, including delivering specialist palliative care in nursing homes, while supporting work to enhance the environment at Wansbeck hospital.”
Marion Dickson, executive director of nursing at Northumbria Healthcare, added: “We would like to remind the public of our transport service and would urge people who would find it difficult to travel from Morpeth to Wansbeck hospital to visit relatives in the unit to make use of it by speaking to the ward team.”