Critics of the controversial plans to close the 15 NHS beds at Westminster Hospital in Shaftesbury believe the consultation has been deeply flawed and the proposals themselves based on inadequate information. In particular residents of south Wiltshire insist that they have not been properly consulted over the plans to downgrade the hospital at Shaftesbury to a community ‘hub’ with no inpatient beds. At a public consultation meeting held at Shaftesbury School last month the chairman of Mere town council Brett Norris queried who was consulted in his area. ‘The county councillors didn’t know anything about it, the local councillors didn’t and the residents didn’t know about it,’ Councillor Norris told the panel of officials from the Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) who are behind the proposals.
The mayor of Gillingham Barry Von Clemens said he knew that the people of Mere had not been consulted about the changes. ‘We sent the consultation documents from Gillingham Town Hall to Mere because they had not received anything!’ he told Gillingham News. And Dr Andrew Murrison, MP for South West Wiltshire, who also attended the meeting at Shaftesbury School on 15 February, is equally unhappy at the lack of consultation in Wiltshire. Addressing the CCG chief officer Tim Goodson at that gathering, Dr Murrison said: ‘I have to ask you this evening to extend the consultation so that those important patients who use services on this county boundary are properly consulted. Otherwise I’m afraid you’re going to find your consultation is fatally flawed.’
The CCG chief officer, however, was adamant that the three-month consultation, which began on 1 December and ended on 28 February, had been conducted properly. A spokesman for the CCG insisted: ‘Since the launch of the Clinical Services Review in October 2014 we have worked hard to engage with people across the county and involve them in the development of the proposals. This includes the organisation of a number of events and attendance at public events in North Dorset along with pop-up information sessions in Wiltshire to keep people informed, seek views and answer questions.’ However, the anger over a perceived lack of consultation is widespread, prompting calls for an extension of the deadline amid threats of possible legal challenges.
But in addition to the consultation issue, there is also deep unease over just how the CCG came up with a proposal to cut 15 beds at a hospital that serves the fast-growing area of Shaftesbury, Gillingham and Mere in favour of leaving beds at ‘hubs’ in Blandford and Sherborne. At the meeting in Shaftesbury, Gillingham and district council councillor David Walsh pointed out that according to local plans ‘Gillingham and Shaftesbury is the fastest growing area in the whole region’ and queried whether this had been taken into account in the plan to keep inpatient beds at Sherborne but not Shaftesbury. The Westminster Memorial Hospital Working Group, which was formed under the aegis of Shaftesbury Town Council, accused the CCG of basing its plans on ‘inadequately researched information’. North Dorset MP Simon Hoare notes: ‘We have proposals where in essence we in the northern part of the county would be left absolutely bed-less.’
Critics are also puzzled why officials want to close beds at Shaftesbury when every day staff from Salisbury District Hospital are on the phone to Westminster Hospital asking if they have any spare beds. And at a time of reduced rural bus services opponents worry how relatives will be able to visit loved ones hospitalised in Blandford or Sherborne if they do not have a car. Carolyn Cox, acting chair of the League of Friends of Westminster Memorial Hospital Shaftesbury and a part-time staff nurse, said: ‘The transport systems are not in place for them to visit elsewhere.’ However, the CCG says that plans to have care-home beds available locally will ease the transport situation. ‘The proposal is to have a community hub without beds within Shaftesbury hospital which will offer a range of community services. In addition, to have a number of short term care-home beds with in-reach support – these could be sited at both Shaftesbury and Gillingham.’
The CCG has not helped themselves in the way some of the proposals have been presented. A suggestion at the Shaftesbury School meeting that the new community ‘hubs’ could have ‘cafés’ was greeted with derision by many in the audience who said they preferred to have hospital beds rather than more places to drink coffee.
Will Westminster Hospital be sold off?
Alongside the future of inpatient beds at Shaftesbury is the issue of whether the Westminster Hospital itself will be sold off. At the public meeting on 15 February the CCG’s chief officer Tim Goodson insisted that this matter had not even been discussed and such talk was ‘massively ahead of the game’. But he admitted that because of its age, condition and location the site’s future was being questioned. ‘That is quite an old difficult building,’ he told the meeting. ‘We have put a question mark over that building and location.’ A CCG spokesman said consultation had acknowledged that the Westminster Hospital was ‘not a good infrastructure for healthcare delivery in the future. Therefore future options for a new site should be considered.’ But he stressed they have not undertaken a review of potential sites.