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Warning that Covid crisis is ‘now being used as cover for cuts to NHS’

Children's A&E services at Royal Free and UCLH remain closed

03 September, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Children’s A&E services are not returning to the Royal Free this winter

SENIOR NHS staff fear Covid-19 is being used to rationalise cost-cutting changes at the Royal Free and University College Hospital.

NHS management are extending a system used during the peak of the pandemic which effectively shut the paediatrics wards and children’s Accident and Emergency units at the two hospitals. Young patients are instead being told to go to the Whittington in Highgate.

NHS chiefs are publicly saying the changes are “temporary” and being put in place in case of a second wave of coronavirus over the winter.

But the New Journal understands that behind closed doors the shake-up is fully expected to be made permanent and is rooted in staffing costs.

One high-level hospital source said: “This was supposed to be a short-term thing for Covid. That’s why initially everyone went along with it – because it was a crisis and we all had to work together. But what they are doing now was never a plan, that’s why so many people are upset about it – they feel like they’ve been duped. There is a lot of expertise being lost here, and there are a lot of people angry about it.”

The source added: “The thing about paediatrics is that you don’t mess around with it. It’s the reason a lot of children go home alive.”

It has been claimed privately that 310 child patients had been turned away from UCLH after showing-up at the paediatric A&E in the past month. UCLH confirmed last night (Wednesday) it was on average “redirecting” eight child patients away from the hospital every day. Both of the hospitals’ children’s A&Es have been recently refurbished and have state of the art specialist equipment.

Meanwhile, NHS staff are having to reapply for jobs in the shake up adding to further confusion.

At the Royal Free, a staff member told the New Journal: “Is it to do with Covid? It really doesn’t make sense, and you can only imagine the community reaction when they find out. They’re protective about the NHS as it is, let alone when it comes to children.” Children’s hospital beds and emergency care were moved to the Whittington Hospital in April to free up ward space for patients needing treatment for the coronavirus.

The removal of “duplicated” services in north London’s main hospitals is a long-held ambition of health boardroom strategists, who are tasked with making almost £1billion of efficiencies across the sector by 2022. NHS chiefs conducted a review that concluded that “staffing levels are a challenge to being able to maintain safe and resilient services for children and young people” and recommended “a smaller number of emergency departments and in-patient units”.

North London Partners – which makes health funding decisions for five boroughs including Camden and Islington – said the “temporary changes” were the safest option considering the potential for a “second surge in Covid-19 cases”.

It added: “The Royal Free Hospital (Hampstead site) the emergency department will temporarily close its paediatric emergency department and in-patient beds. “The Whittington paediatric emergency department and in-patient unit is to remain open, but expanded to meet forecast demand. The UCLH children and young people’s emergency department will remain temporarily closed over winter.”

An internal bulletin to hospital staff added: “We are hugely grateful for all your work and for the way you have responded to the pandemic and changes to services in recent months.”

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