Upset over plans to relocate Whalton Unit out of Morpeth

Health commissioners have backed a proposal to make permanent the controversial move of the Whalton Unit from Morpeth to Ashington.

 NHS Whalton Unit.
NHS Whalton Unit.

The ‘very important and difficult’ decision, made by the governing body of NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) at a meeting on Wednesday October 23, is subject to a number of provisos though, including the development of further palliative care services in Morpeth.

It is also subject to scrutiny in a fortnight’s time by Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee, who will determine if the changes represent a ‘substantial variation of service’ and therefore require 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.

Barbara Ross, of the Whalton Unit Campaign, presenting the 2,000-name petition to County Hall.

The unit, which delivers specialist rehabilitation – mainly for frail older patients – as well as some palliative care, moved to an interim base in Ward 8 at Ashington’s Wansbeck General Hospital on December 19 last year.

The shift, which Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust underlined was temporary at that time, was announced two weeks before its relocation, based on a need to ensure that there was adequate staffing to cope with the expected increase in demand over the winter months.

This was subsequently extended and now the trust believes that a permanent move will also help deal with long-term staff recruitment and retention issues as well as improving patient safety and quality.

Northumbria Healthcare’s Barbara Scott, who managed the Whalton Unit until very recently, told the meeting that since the move, patients had received more timely tests and investigations due to being in the hospital, had fewer transfers to other sites, had fewer falls and had benefited from more consistent nursing care and an improved skill mix in the staff.

“Staff continue to tell us, particularly nursing staff, that they feel safer where the unit is now and they enjoy being in a larger community with other healthcare professionals,” she said. “Staffing has been stable since about February, which is the longest I can remember at the Whalton Unit.”

However, earlier in the meeting, the governing body heard from Barbara Ross, from the campaign group, who said: “At the time of our death, we would prefer to be surrounded by our loved ones and to be granted privacy and dignity. This was easily accommodated at the Whalton Unit in Morpeth because of the 30 individual rooms.

“We have heard that palliative care is an area that the CCG wants to improve. What should happen is that those 30 beds remain in Morpeth until such time that the review of palliative care takes place.

“Otherwise patients will continue to die at Wansbeck without the privacy and dignity that every person deserves.”

She added: “The people of Morpeth were told that they would continue to have a unit for rehabilitation and palliative care in our community when our Cottage Hospital closed.

“We ask that the CCG thinks carefully before reneging on that promise.”

In an attempt to deal with some of the concerns of campaigners, as well as the main themes which were raised during the recent public engagement, Rachel Mitcheson, the CCG’s head of commissioning, put forward a series of recommendations, which were agreed by the governing body.

They include that the trust continues to offer transport support for relatives and carers to travel to visit patients at Wansbeck and to improve the ward environment to include rehabilitation space and a day room.

The CCG and trust will also both work to improve care in the Morpeth community by investing in more community matrons to support additional nursing home beds in the town and allied health professionals to support frail elderly patients better within their own homes.

Perhaps most significantly, a palliative care bed model to enable patients to receive end-of-life care in local nursing homes is to be developed, while health bosses will continue to work on a new end-of-life strategy for Northumberland, to be presented to councillors next April.