The big climbdown over Whittington Hospital sell-off: A victory for people power
11 July, 2013
Campaign leader Shirley Franklin, and Dr Greg Battle, medical director for integrated care
Published: 11 July, 2013
by TOM FOOT
A DRIVE to cull hundreds of jobs, to sell off millions of pounds worth of publicly-owned buildings, to cap births and halve the number of beds at Whittington Hospital has been defeated by a people-power campaign.
Backtracking boardroom bosses have admitted their detailed 130-page “estates strategy” – only brought to public attention by a New Journal exclusive in January –has been abandoned.
Thousands marched behind our battle bus in a demonstration organised alongside volunteers from Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition (DWHC) in March.
Hospital directors have said they now believe the strategy “could never have been possible” and have pointed a finger of blame at “dying political masters” for pushing them towards a ‘nuclear’ option.
They have said they want to begin the process of rebuilding trust with the community after confirming on Tuesday for the first time that there are now “no plans to close beds” or make “significant” staff cuts over the next five years.
Whittington’s medical director Dr Martin Kuper said: “I don’t think the strategy as written would have been realised anyway.
"It was an attempt to go into the future in a level of detail that was not possible. You can’t make reductions in activity without seeing the patient demand change first. I don’t think that was ever going to happen to the extent that was envisaged in the estates plan.”
The U-turn follows a ferocious backlash, led by high-profile names – including A-list actors Damien Lewis and Dominic West and singers Annie Lennox and Alexandra Burke – MPs and the public, who marched in their thousands against the plan.
DWHC chairwoman Shirley Franklin said: “I do think there is a lot to celebrate. We have achieved a lot.
"I really, really want to record a huge thanks because we think the paper is fab. We owe a lot of what we have achieved to the New Journal and Islington Tribune.”
Our newspapers had pledged to keep a hawk-eye watch on developments at the Highgate hospital after being at the forefront of a campaign to save the accident and emergency department when it was threatened with closure in 2010, a campaign which later resulted in an industry award for the New Journal.
It was only by combing through board papers and through our presence at meetings, scarcely attended by the public, that we were able to reveal the drastic plan this time around.
Astonishingly, even MPs representing Camden, Islington and Haringey, the boroughs where most of the hospital’s patients are drawn from, had not been told about the proposed overhaul before reading about it in the New Journal and its sister paper, the Islington Tribune.
They immediately went on the warpath and demanded a pause in the process.
On Tuesday, more good news was confirmed: there are now no plans to cap hospital births at 4,000, as had been approved, and the maternity unit, previously under threat, will be expanded with a £10million refurbishment.
The original plan to axe 570 staff posts – including 200 nurses – and halve the number of beds at the hospital to 177 has been completely withdrawn. If job cuts are made, agency staff will be first in line for the chop.
Whittington Health director of organisational development Jo Ridgway said: “Over the next few months, we will be reviewing the skills mix of our staff, but we envisage no significant reduction to our permanent staff over the next five years.”
The original January board papers had cited plans for a “significant reduction in posts across the trust”.
Among the changes outlined on Tuesday, the Grade II-listed Jenner building and the newly-built Whittington Education Centre will not now be sold.
But the freehold of the hospital’s towering Victorian nursing accommodation blocks – with 70 rooms for low-paid NHS staff – will be sold off and developed.
The hospital trust said the process would take some time and not affect current student nurses, who will move to another Whittington building in Hornsey, which is currently part-occupied mainly by key workers.
The changes follow a three-month “listening exercise” with the public and a decision by the Department of Health to scrap a deadline – set by outgoing Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley – for all hospitals to achieve foundation trust status by April 2014.
Failure to do so would have led to the board being replaced and the hospital taken over by another NHS trust, with University College Hospital waiting in the wings.
Whittington integrated care medical director Dr Greg Battle said: “It meant there was a need to lock down something that our dying political masters at the time needed to be satisfied. Now the mood has changed and there isn’t a drop-dead date.
"The process has recognised that we need to proceed only on the clinical excellence of the organisation.”
The trust has revised its clinical strategy – to be published later this month – which the board said “reaffirms” its original intentions to treat more patients at home or in nearby health centres.
Dr Battle said internet “telehealth” consultations and emails would be used more frequently in consultations with patients at home, adding: “Lots of older people are Skyping their grandkids. It’s a way of shifting power towards patients in managing their own health.”
DWHC has vowed to keep up the fight against the trust’s community care policy, warning that patients may be discharged from hospital too soon and be neglected.
But chief executive Dr Yi Mien Koh said the changes were a “good news story” and no patients would be discharged until they were well enough to go home.
She said the hospital’s “enhanced recovery” system – where staff are encouraged to get patients up and walking sooner than expected rather than lying around in beds all day – was the envy of NHS trusts across the country.
“We are at the vanguard of all this change,” she added.
Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said: “The campaigning of local papers has had an effect. The board at the Whittington had a degree of rethink on maternity and some of the assets sales. But I still have huge concerns about the future of the nurses’ homes, which is needed for nurses to live in.
“The second concern is the capacity of the three local authorities to cope with adult social care at home when NHS care is finished. All are having budget cuts. The Whittington is still moving very fast to unprecedented care at home when people would rather be cared for in hospitals.”
He added: “While I welcome the limited job losses, I wish the board to be more specific. Especially on the medical secretaries. I want a strong district hospital with full A&E facilities.”
In a tribute to campaigners, he added: “Thanks for all the work on this. It’s made a tremendous difference. It’s democracy in action.”
More details about the Whittington changes can be found in the trust’s briefing on its revised plans at www.whittington.nhs.uk/ourfuture
‘Red carpet’ alliance: How A-listers backed campaign
• January 24 – The New Journal exclusively reveals that the Whittington board had agreed to a five-year, cost-cutting estates strategy that would shut patient wards, halve the hospital’s beds, sell off almost half of the Highgate site and cap births at 4,000.
• January 25 – The board is dragged into the House of Commons by five angry MPs, who say they have been left in the dark over the major changes despite meeting with the hospital over Christmas.
• February 7 – Whittington chairman Joe Liddane warns: “We think we have a plan that saves the hospital. If that is defeated – there are consequences.” He is referring to a bid to become a foundation trust hospital. Failure would mean the hospital being taken over by another organisation.
• February 14 – More than 500 people pack a public meeting in Archway Methodist Hall with calls for a “huge demo” in March.
• February 23 – An unprecedented “red carpet” alliance swings behind the New Journal’s campaign, bringing the plight of the Whittington to national attention. Big names include The Wire actor Dominic West, film director Stephen Frears, singers Annie Lennox and Ms Dynamite and actors Juliet Stevenson, Rupert Graves and Dexter Fletcher. There is support from X Factor chart-topper Alexandra Burke, comedian Alexei Sayle and crime writer Martina Cole.
• March 16 – Thousands march through the wind and rain from Highbury Corner to a demo outside the Whittington.
• April 25 – Bosses abandon their monthly meeting after being confronted by sell-off protesters wearing black cat masks and carrying megaphones in the boardroom. A councillor warns that direct action will “destroy” the hospital.
• May 17 – Consultants Ernst & Young are parachuted in for three months to help the hospital board “redraft” its strategy.
• June 27 – The board hints at “significant changes”.
• June 30 – Following a question from MP Jeremy Corbyn, health minister Anna Soubry tells the House of Commons there are now “no plans for significant overall reduction”.
• July – The same minister confirms that, “in light of the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry report”, foundation trust status deadlines “can go beyond 2014 on a case by case basis”.
• July 9 – The board confirms in a press briefing that there are now “no plans to close beds” or make “significant reductions”.
Axed staff treated ‘inhumanely’
A GROUP of 38 Whittington staff who lost their jobs after a car parts company was hired to review hospital procedures have lodged a collective grievance with managers, writes Tom Foot.
The workers – medical secretaries, maternity unit admin staff and some clinical staff – say they have suffered an “unjustified level of stress” and have been treated “inhumanely” following a review by Unipart.
The “displaced” staff have spent at least a year with the threat of redundancy hanging over their heads.
The New Journal has seen a letter sent by trade union Unison Whittington’s branch to hospital trust directors saying staff were promised new jobs but “contracts have not been forthcoming” and that “sickness levels have rocketed” while “low morale is widespread”.
It adds: “It is a breach of human rights. It is totally unacceptable to treat a group of staff in this way.”
Unipart was paid £500,000 to find a way to help the Whittington make £900,000 savings each year by streamlining the hospital’s admin system.
At Tuesday’s meeting, chief executive Dr Yi Mien Koh said: “We have not managed the process as well as we should have done. We have learned from that and we are making sure we involve staff from the earliest possibility.
“I think they were caught in the process – in the period of overlapping consultations.”
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