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The threatened inpatient beds at Westminster Memorial Hospital in Shaftesbury look likely to be saved after all, writes Richard Thomas.

The health body Dorset Care Commissioning Group (CCG) has today announced a U-turn by revealing that it is now recommending the 15 inpatient beds at the hospital should be kept.

Earlier this year it proposed axing the beds, a move which triggered a fierce local campaign of opposition in Shaftesbury, Gillingham and parts of Wiltshire, including Mere.

Although the formal decision will not be made by Dorset CCG until Wednesday 20 September it seems highly unlikely that this new recommendation will be rejected.

The largely unexpected move came as a result of the public consultation and the Save Our Beds! Campaign that opposed the closure of the beds in the hospital, health chiefs have admitted.

Significantly the recommendation that the Shaftesbury beds should stay is one of only four changes from the original county-wide review of health care provision in Dorset.

The new recommendation from Dorset CCG states: ‘We propose to maintain a community hub with beds in Shaftesbury whilts working with the local community on a sustainable model for future services based on the health and care needs of this locality.’

SOBS! organiser Julian Prichard told Gillingham News: ‘If the board accepts the recommendations to keep the beds next week, there will be a huge sigh of relief across the North Dorset and South Wiltshire.  

‘This result is testimony to all those who have worked so hard to give the community a chance to make their voice heard through the unprecedented number of consultation questionnaire returned.  It seems that the CCG have taken note, listened and acted and for that we are genuinely grateful.’

He added: ‘Our sticker campaign will continue to keep the hospital foremost in our minds as we fundraise for further development at the hospital via the Friends of WMH.’

Simon Hoare, MP for North Dorset, said: ‘I warmly welcome the CCG recommendation to retain beds at the Westminster Memorial and to explore commissioning of a new health hub.  There was a huge local campaign to retain these beds and the CCG has been as good as its word.

‘The CCG promised me that it would listen to local voices and it is.  There will be huge relief among my constituents and I share that.  I will continue to work with the CCG to ensure the best outcomes for North Dorset.’

Councillor Barry Von Clemens, who was involved in the opposition to the bed closure plans while he was mayor of Gillingham, said: ‘I’d like to offer my personal thanks and congratulations to everyone who joined us in the fight for our hospital beds. Everyone was amazing in uniting our communities to defend the wishes of the people of Gillingham, Shaftesbury and the surrounding towns and parishes to keep these beds.’

Councillor Anthony Austin, chairman of Shaftesbury Town Council’s hospital working group, said: ‘If the recommendation [to retain the beds] is ratified on 20 Sep it will mean that the massive support for these changes will have been justified.

‘It also means that the community will have the opportunity to work together to create he hospital facilities we need in the future. The prospects of how to achieve this are both awesome and exciting.’

However, he said it should not be taken for granted that the recommendation will pass on the 20th.

There are fears there is still ‘a significant minority’ of GPs on the governing body opposed to keeping the beds in Shaftesbury.

Melanie Costas, leader of the Save Our Mental Health campaign, noted: ‘The way the community came together to support the fantastic SoB! Campaign has now been recognised by being instrumental in the decision making process of the CCG.

‘The reward is that WMH will retain the inpatient beds and become a “community hub with beds”.’

The controversial proposals for north Dorset put forward by Dorset CCG at the end of last year included removing the 15 in-patient beds from Shaftesbury hospital and turning the hospital into a ‘day care’ hub only.

The proposed cuts formed part of a programme of savings to prevent losses that Dorset CCG claims are currently running at £23 million a year. The CCG anticipates that by 2020 this shortfall will have risen to £158 million a year if nothing is done.

Campaigners,  including local MPs Simon Hoare and Dr Andrew Murrison, had feared that cutting the beds could have been a prelude to closing the hospital altogether.

They were particularly angry that the CCG did not fully consult with patients using the hospital from Wiltshire, including Mere, or with Salisbury hospital even though it consulted extensively with Hampshire patients using the hospitals in the south of Dorset.

Shaftesbury hospital serves an estimated 30,000 people in the north Dorset, south west Wiltshire and south Somerset area but was threatened with losing all its inpatient beds.

However, it is clear that the future of the WMH building itself in Shaftesbury is not being guaranteed indefinitely by the health authority. Asked about its future the chairman of Dorset CCG Dr Forbes Watson said today it was in a ‘holding situation’.

And Councillor Austin said he also believed personally that Westminster Memorial hospital was ‘approaching its sell-by date’ and its long term future was doubtful.

Melanie Costas added: ‘It is not clear how long this “stay of execution” remains in place, as the long term future of the hospital is still under threat.

‘We must now focus our efforts on looking at the long term sustainability of in-patient beds in Shaftesbury as it is vital that we retain an NHS run community hospital in such a rural area.’