I attended the Special Health and Well-being Scrutiny Committee meeting in the Town Hall this morning. The topic under debate was the future of acute stroke service provision in Darlington, following the leaking to the press of a document last week which suggested that the stroke unit at Darlington Memorial was to close.
In the debate at Scrutiny it became clear to me, having listened to local GOLD and Age Concern members in the public gallery, that the action of Jenny Chapman, the Labour Party’s Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington, in leaking to the press an incomplete internal NHS Trust document, has caused great anxiety among the elderly population of Darlington. Surprisingly, Cllr Chapman chose not to attend the Scrutiny Meeting, which is strange, since just a week ago she was bleating on in the press and on her Facebook page that she had saved the day for Darlington. You'd have thought she would have been present, basking in the glory of having rescued the stroke service from imminent closure. Except, that's not quite how it is.
I do not hold the Echo responsible for causing such anxiety amongst local people: as a campaigning newspaper they were obliged to run with the story. But Cllr Chapman, and whoever it was at the highest level in the Labour Group who provided her with this document, clearly had no thought for the anxiety and distress that rushing to the press with this story would create.
Cllr Chapman’s only concern was to gain some fleeting political advantage for herself with no thought of the wider consequences of her actions. This scare-mongering is not the approach we should expect from someone who wishes to represent the people of Darlington.
What is important is that all parties come together to ensure that Darlington retains the highest quality acute stroke provision at our local hospital. Our top priority should be protecting local health services, not causing great public anxiety by pursuing cheap party political advantage.
As Stephen Eames, the Chief Executive of the NHS Trust said this morning, "The leaking of this document was unfortunate. The document was incomplete and was for discussion." He was "Very sorry that it happened." He stressed that there were "no plans to close the Darlington Stroke Unit in the forseeable future."
Due to impending retirements and recruitment difficulties, there would have been short-term pressure on the service later this year. Thankfully, one of the intending retirees has agreed to continue in post for longer if necessary and it is hoped the other will also do so. The current level of provision is assured.
Furthermore, despite Cllr Chapman's claims that closure was imminent, steps had already been taken within the Trust to recruit other senior staff to relieve some of the other pressures on consultants in the Stroke Unit, thereby freeing up their time to concentrate on providing stroke services. The continuing provision of acute stroke services in Darlington at the current level was never under threat. If Cllr Chapman had bothered to speak to Stephen Eames before she went running to the Echo, she would not have caused so much anxiety among local people.
There is a longer-term debate required, however, because of the Government's commitment to provide acute stroke services on a 24/7 basis. A full debate with all interested groups and a thorough public consultation will have to be carried out to consider the best way to achieve that target. This regional review, "could lead to the reconfiguration of stroke services in the region."
Labour Councillor Ian Hazeldine said he was of a "cynical view which would be that you (the Trust) are setting yourselves up to make decisions later on a cost basis." He said, "I haven't heard anything that tells me this is a genuine attempt at consultation and not just the start of a cost-cutting exercise." Ian clearly suspects that this is the start of a process that could see stroke provision in Darlington compromised by the need to reduce costs.
The Trust spokesman, in response, said, "This isn't about cost-cutting at all - in fact we are putting more money into the service. There are no plans to change the number of beds available."
Conservative Councillor Heather Scott said, "I stress the importance of having all the information available before this Committee to enable it to contribute to the debate. I will fight tooth and nail to ensure we have the best services in Darlington."
Lib Dem Councillor Peter Freitag asked why this document had not been brought before the Trust advisory board, on which he sits.
Conservative Councillors Kate Davies and Gill Cartwright concentrated on the leaking of this document to Cllr Chapman and through her to the press: "irresponsible", "scare-mongering" were typical of their comments. Gill said it is important that these papers should go to Scrutiny before being leaked to other backbench councillors. The Chair refused to allow discussion of the leak.
The debate about the long-term future of acute stroke service provision in Darlington and County Durham, in the light of the requirement to provide a 24/7 service, must be held and, if the Trust at some stage proposes to remove part of this service from Darlington it must be opposed as strongly as we can. But that is a different issue to the short-term problem, which had already been solved, of consultants' planned retirements later this year. And it should be done by all parties working together and campaigning as appropriate - not by scare-mongering and seeking narrow party political advantage.