Plans to radically alter hospital services in Calderdale and Kirklees have been on the cards for years now. The most recent proposals by local health bosses involve the closure of Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, with Kirklees patients needing to travel to Halifax for most hospital services. However, in the latest development the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt dismissed this as unsafe and sent the plans back to the drawing board.
While it is tempting to see this as a victory for our local healthcare system, the Health Secretary has failed to outline a clear vision for how services can be delivered safely in our area. Alongside other MPs in the affected constituencies, I have written to Mr Hunt raising a number of questions which must be urgently addressed if we are to ensure the safety of local patients.
Firstly, the advice from the ‘Independent Reconfiguration Panel’ (who reviewed the proposals on behalf of the Health Secretary) is that the current set up, with full services provided at both Halifax and Huddersfield, cannot continue. Therefore the Government must come clean on whether any future proposals could involve a worst case scenario where A&Es at both hospitals are scrapped and patients of both areas are forced to travel to Leeds or elsewhere in order to access emergency care.
Secondly, the Government must set out as soon as possible how they intend to ensure patient safety if they support neither the current plans (closing Huddersfield Royal Infirmary) nor a meaningful increase in funding for local services. Health bosses have told me they believe the closure plans are necessary in order to put services on a sound financial footing. So, if closures are off the table, they will need extra funding to tackle their deficit of around £26m a year.
The Government says that they have increased funding for the NHS since 2010; on average this has been an increase of 1% a year. However, when this is compared to the previous Labour Government, it is obvious why we are seeing the current problems. From 1997 to 2010 NHS funding increased by an average of 6% a year. If the NHS is to cope with increased costs and an ageing population, which we have in Calderdale, it unavoidably needs more money.
Finally, although I agree with the decision to halt the reconfiguration process, the current proposals have been through a lengthy consultation period. Now local decision makers have been given 3 months to draw up a plan of how they will produce alternative proposals. It is not currently clear how health bosses or the Government foresee the community having a role in developing the new proposals.
It’s vital that we get comprehensive answers to these questions so we all know what the future holds in store. It is likely that major changes are still going to happen and I’ll continue to follow this process extremely closely; meeting regularly with local health bosses and patients. But we must remember that it is years of Conservative mismanagement and underfunding which has led us to where we are today.
As the NHS approaches its 70th birthday, it’s increasingly running on the good will of dedicated staff, and only the Health Secretary has the power to resolve the current crises. We’re still waiting on him for a response to these questions.