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Residents confront NHS bosses over A&E closure plans

PUBLISHED: 15:33 03 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:43 07 September 2010

HUNDREDS of furious residents turned out to confront the health bosses planning to downsize the Whittington Hospital and close its A&E department. A leaked letter to NHS staff was sent out last year setting out plans to reshuffle services in C

Tan Parsons

HUNDREDS of furious residents turned out to confront the health bosses planning to downsize the Whittington Hospital and close its A&E department.

A leaked letter to NHS staff was sent out last year setting out plans to reshuffle services in Camden, Islington, Barnet, Haringey and Enfield, leaving the Whittington with no accident and emergency department or specialist services.

The meeting on Monday January 25 was convened by Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn as Rachel Tyndall, the chief executive of North Central London NHS, met affected residents to try to explain the rationale for the plans to downgrade the Whittington from acute to 'local' status.

Held next door to the hospital at the Archway Methodist Church, the meeting was packed to the rafters with angry campaigners who bombarded Ms Tyndall and her colleagues with criticism - especially over the issue of increased journey times for patients in Haringey who would need to travel further to reach the Royal Free Hospital in an emergency.

Despite the letter Ms Tyndall said no decision had yet been made about the future of the Whittington's A&E unit, but the bleak financial picture she described left little doubt that closure was a distinct possibility.

She said: "We are mindful that whatever government is in power we will have less money than we have had in the past. I've got a responsibility to balance the books. I can't spend more money than I've got."

They had been told to plan on the basis of no growth in real terms over the next three financial years, she said.

"There are going to be difficult and hard decisions as we look to the future," she said. "It's our job to work out how to use the money we do have to the best effect."

She said it costs about £150-180million a year to run the Whittington and if that amount is still spent on the hospital in the future, they will have to choose to cut other services elsewhere.

At first she promised any changes to the Whittington would be minimal but later conceded that any emergency care would be provided only during normal working hours and not after hours through the night.

This brought howls of derision from the floor, with questions raised over what would happen to anyone unlucky enough to be stabbed in Archway after the unit had closed at 8pm.

Former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras, said: "The worst off people with no access to a private car will find it most difficult.

"The facilities at the Whittington are there. They have been paid for. If you have alternatives to this it's going to take more NHS money to provide these instead. That's where the whole thing doesn't make sense."

Mr Corbyn said there was concern among the public that a decision would be made "behind our backs" and that the final outcome would be presented as a fait accompli.

Meanwhile leading local lobby group, the Highgate Society, has pitched into the battle.

The society's researchers have compiled statistics showing it would take an extra half hour for patients in Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate to reach the Royal Free instead of the Whittington when coming by public transport.

Chairwoman Catherine Budgett-Meakin said: "With seriously injured people, that additional time must mean more deaths."

Their researchers found it would take residents in the current Whittington catchment area an extra 21 minutes on average to reach the Royal Free by public transport and up to an extra hour for patients in Hornsey.

They also found that at least half the residents in the area are more than an hour away from the Royal Free by public transport and that with the exception of addresses near Northern line tube stations most journeys involve at least three buses or trains.

Ms Budgett-Meakin added: "Experience shows that closure of an A and E department leads to a general decline in standards as the very best staff are no longer attracted to the hospital."

North Central London NHS has set a date of September to present finalised options for consultation over the future of health services in the sector.

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