Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Scrutiny debates Acute Stroke provision

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.


james said...

In defence of Cllr Chapman, she was bringing to greater awareness what was already in the public domain through twitter and the issue of stroke services is of particular concern for her.

You might as well say the Echo should have consulted Stephen Eames - but then, he's not a rival candidate in parliamentary elections.

I don't recall her Facebook page or press comments claiming she had saved the day for Darlington - rather that by making opposition to such changes clear it make it harder for an unpopular policy to be implemented.

Mike Barker said...

Hi James,

Where was this issue "already in the public domain"? The earliest reference I can find to it on Twitter or on any blog is on Cllr Chapman's own page on the evening before the Echo ran its story. If you can show me where it was in the public domain before Cllr Chapman took it to the press I'll be happy to print it.

I acknowledge that the issue of stroke services is of particular concern to her. Perhaps then she should have realised that going public with this for narrow party political gain would cause huge upset and anxiety amongst the very people who would lose out if this service was transferred to Durham.

Obviously, Cllr Chapman did not use the phrase "saved the day for Darlington." Read this post from her though:

On January 12th she writes,
"Had interesting conversation with Stephen Eames, Chief Executive at the Health Authority, about proposals to remove Darlington's services for stroke patients. For now he assures me that following my objections featured in The Northern Echo this morning, the proposals will not be going ahead. I will be meeting with Mr Eames soon to make the case formally for the retention of stroke services in Darlington."

It clearly suggests that it was her objections and telephone conversation with Mr Eames that led directly to the decision not to go ahead with this proposal.

Both Cllr Heather Scott and Cllr Peter Freitag have a long history of fighting for health provision in Darlington. They both sit on the relevant scrutiny committee, which was the appropriate all-party body to lead any campaign on this issue. Cllr Freitag also sits on the Trust's advisory board. Yet they were not informed about these proposals until the story appeared in the Echo.

The word around town is that only three councillors had seen the document in question: the Leader of the Council, the Labour Party's campaigns and election organiser, and the Chair of Scrutiny, who is Cllr Chapman's mother.

The document fell into Cllr Chapman's hands. If you had been present at the scrutiny committee meeting and spoken to representatives from GOLD and Age Concern you would have seen the huge upset and anxiety that this has caused among elderly people in Darlington: many of them stroke sufferers or relatives of stroke sufferers. This affair should have been handled in an appropriate way, such that these people were not subjected to this level of anxiety.

It is too big an issue to be used for narrow party political advantage. Were there not a General Election coming up, I doubt if the matter would have been handled like this. My objection is not to Cllr Chapman's efforts to stop these proposals going ahead: this is something we all want to stop.

My objection is to the anxiety this caused by being handled the way it was and to the Labour Party's disregard of the appropriate way in which this should have been dealt with. Their actions risked dividing the parties against each other, when they should have been encouraging a united front against these proposals.

james said...

"It is too big an issue to be used for narrow party political advantage."

Sure, but then arguably you are doing the same by focusing on the way in which the information was leaked...

Mike Barker said...

Who, me?

Moving on to today's Echo. Today's report is headlined "Ten Month Deadline to recruit stroke unit staff". It says that officials "may have to close" the unit if new consultants cannot be recruited.

But the Echo's report fails to mention two other points made by officials at the meeting.

Firstly, they have reached agreement with one (and they hope both) of the consultants who were intending to retire in October, that they will remain in post beyond their planned retirement date in order to provide care in the event of the vacancies not being filled.

And secondly, Mr Eames said that other staff were being recruited to take on some of the non-stroke-specific workload of the remaining consultants so that they could concentrate on providing the care required to keep the Darlington unit open.

I made the above points in my original post. I repeat, and I wrote it down as he said it:

He (Mr Eames) stressed that there were "no plans to close the Darlington Stroke Unit in the forseeable future."

There are two seperate issues here, which have been merged together in various reports. The short-term problems caused by the intended retirement in ten months time of two consultants. This, the committee was assured, would not pose a threat to the unit because of other action that has and will be taken, as I've outlined above.

The other issue is the requirement to re-assess stroke services across the Trust's area because of the need to meet the Government's promise of providing a 24/7 acute stroke service.

This may be more problematic for the Darlington unit in the medium to long term. But that process will be subject to full consultation with the involvement of all interested parties. Any threat of closure must and will be vigorously opposed by all parties and interested groups in the town.