A&E axe: the final countdown

PUBLISHED: 17:00 25 February 2009 | UPDATED: 16:10 25 August 2010

THE TRUTH about NHS chiefs decision to drop the axe on your emergency health services is set to be disclosed in the next month.

THE TRUTH about NHS chiefs' decision to drop the axe on your emergency health services is set to be disclosed in the next month.

The Independent Reconfiguration Panel will tomorrow complete its evidence gathering ahead of a report on the decision to close A&E and maternity services at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup.

The IRP's final report, due to be handed to the Secretary of State by March 31, will fall almost exactly two years after your Kentish Times took up the fight against proposals to close Sidcup services.

On March 29, 2007 we revealed that plans were on the horizon to close QMS emergency services in order to centralise services onto fewer sites across south-east London.

Health chiefs continually insisted that no plans were set in stone, but the Times was determined to defend local services and days later launched a campaign to save them.

That summer the Times received a raft of support from readers and saw the campaign endorsed by Chislehurst Olympian, Steve Backley OBE.

A leaked email to the Times news desk in July revealed that managers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich, had compiled a wish-list of cuts to save £60 million. Axing A&E at Sidcup and Lewisham sites appeared on the list while PCT health reformers under the title A Picture of Health (APOH) continued to state they had no predetermined plan. In August we reported that expensive PFI contracts would be used to build polyclinics and GP centres designed to match the closure of general A&E units.

By September, the Times had collected thousands of petition signatures and coupons supporting the campaign.

The Kentish Times' Group Editor Melody Foreman was joined by news editor Kate Mead and reporter Matt Cartmell to hand the petition to 10 Downing Street with Derek Conway MP. The following month the campaign received the full backing of Bexley council while we exclusively revealed that Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust faced a massive £99 million debt even though its wards were filled to 95 per cent occupancy.

APOH released its 'consultation' document in November, which was described by policy expert Dr John Lister as "one of the most deceptive and fraudulent documents I have ever seen".

Three options were presented to residents that required vital services to be stripped from QMS. A forth option to make 'no changes' was given to respondents, despite APOH's chief supporters making it clear they believed "no change is not an option".

Within a month a top NHS clinician, Sir George Alberti, released a report giving the green light to axe services at QMS. Yet days after Christmas we discovered that the Princess Royal University Hospital, Farnborough, was so overwhelmed with patients that ambulances were redirected to QMS.

Using a Freedom of Information request, the Times later learnt that Bromley and Woolwich hospitals, due to become the only full A&E units in the region, redirected ambulances to QMS six times in 2007, half of them due to overcrowding.

As APOH's consultation ensued, the Times encouraged as many people to reply as possible.

Bexley health councillor Sharon Massey lodged a formal complaint about its questions as they failed to address the possibility of saving services at QMS.

In February last year some 300 residents attended a meeting to confront Sir George over his approval of downgrading services at QMS.

As the consultation came to an end, Labour MPs in Lewisham finally came out against APOH's proposals, joining politicians and campaigners who tirelessly argued that it provided 'inadequate' detail.

At the same time the British Medical Association slammed plans to swap hospital services for polyclinics.

In a final show of strength, more than 2,000 people were joined by London Mayor hopeful Boris Johnson on the streets of Sidcup to condemn the QMS cuts on March 1 last year.

Their objection was supported by 23 consultants at QMS who signed a letter that read: "We cannot agree to recommend to our patients plans that contain so many omissions and uncertainties, as we would then take the blame for failure."

It was revealed that just 6,000 residents responded to the consultation, of whom more than 40 per cent were from Bexley. The single most popular option was to make no changes to existing services - no option to keep vital services at QMS was included in the consultation.

Despite this opposition, and despite consistently denying that closure of emergency services at QMS was not premeditated, on July 21 APOH announced it would go ahead with its preferred option anyway.

QMS would be stripped of its adult A&E, a brand new children's A&E and maternity services to become a planned surgery base with an Urgent Care Centre (UCC) for minor injuries.

Vital services would instead be concentrated at PFI-burdened hospitals in Dartford, Woolwich and Bromley.

University Hospital, Lewisham would have its 24 hour A&E coverage reduced to just 12 hours a day.

Bexley councillors said they would seek a second opinion through the IRP, which has spent the last two months collecting evidence on every aspect of APOH's plans and consultation.

The IRP's findings must be considered by the secretary of state, but they are not binding and could still be ignored. Keep reading your

campaigning Times for the latest on health services.

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