This morning some 300 people gathered to demonstrate against the plans to build a new ‘health facility’ in Berwick – co-located with a new leisure facility.
It may seem extraordinary that a population would not want such new facilities. Well, of course, people want and need decent healthcare provision and proper clinical services (and a leisure facility too) here in Berwick. And that is what is driving the campaign group A Better Hospital for Berwick.
Under the new plans, Northumberland County Council and the other groups involved (Clinical Commissioning Group and Northumbria Healthcare Foundation) in the decision-making process assert that:
Every service currently present at the existing site will continue to be provided at the new one. Indeed we are optimistic that, over time, new ones will be added; particularly as the NHS and the Council continue to embrace new technology and ways of working.
However, clinical services in Berwick have already been magicked away. For example, an endoscope purchased by Berwick Infirmary’s League of Friends is now sited in Alnwick, 35 miles south of Berwick. This means a minimum 70-mile round trip (but often a 120-mile round trip to Ashington or other hospital facilities such as North Tyneside and Hexham) for an extremely invasive procedure. It’s a procedure that is both distressing and traumatic (I know this first-hand from my own bowel cancer diagnosis back in 2015) and leaves one prone to embarrassing and humiliating accidents afterwards.
So, to suggest that ‘every service currently present… will continue’ is a bit of verbal trickery. A Better Hospital For Berwick maintains that clinical services such as endoscopes and others that have been taken away should be restored under any plans for health provision in Berwick. These services were certainly in plans to refurb the current Infirmary as recently as 2016 – but are not in plans for the co-located facility.
The campaign group maintain that for the authorities to suggest that the removal of services is due to ‘dwindling demand’ is perverse. Ultimately it is the authorities who drive demand by where they locate clinical facilities and where patients are referred.
The Cabinet meeting this morning focused on the leisure centre facilities. Leader of NCC, Peter Jackson, asserted that the Cabinet members had nothing to do with decisions regarding healthcare provision. The Agenda for the meeting states:
To seek agreement to the development of improved leisure facilities in Berwick
● To agree to moving a scheme forward with Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust as a combined project (Leisure and Hospital facility) at the Swan site.
● To approve an increase in the capital program allocation for the leisure centre development to £18m from the current allocation of £6m approved plus £6m in the y year capital plan.
● To approve the commencement of the detailed design phase in conjunction with Active Northumberland.
Clearly, despite what Mr Jackson says, any decisions taken are linked to both leisure and healthcare provision.
A Better Hospital For Berwick has gathered a big following. It has shown that it can gather and unite people in Berwick despite chilly weather and a meeting time when most people are at work. It has gained press coverage (ITV Tyne Tees and BBC North as well as Radio Borders and The Berwick Advertise were covering the demo this morning). The test for the group will be to maintain momentum and communicate its concerns coherently and cohesively within the community and beyond.