No one is surprised that the state of our health services has emerged has a major battleground in the by-election. Nationally, GPs and hospitals have been buckling under the strain of dealing with Covid-19 and the backlog of diagnoses and treatment. Here in Shropshire, our hospitals have suffered decades of mismanagement, pipedreams and scandals.
The Conservative candidate for the North Shropshire by-election has a consistent track record on the NHS. He has written about NHS staff not being heroes and that he felt embarrassed by Clap for Heroes . Health services, his opinion, are commodities to be bought and sold. He has questioned whether NHS is worth saving and says we must also question the level of treatment that can be publicly funded through the NHS.
In this article, I review just some of the problems with the NHS in Shropshire. Some of them are endemic to the health system, some are regrettably what we locally call “only in Shropshire” problems.
I begin with the Ockenden Review which is looking at 1,862 cases at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Prince Royal Hospital which may have caused harm, including deaths, to mothers and babies. Both hospitals are run by Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust (SaTH) which is responsible for maternity services across the county. The trust, which is in special measures after being rated as inadequate for three years running, blamed some mothers for the deaths of their babies. The trust needed a new chief executive before it could begin to get to grips with the issue. The final report from Donna Ockendon has been delayed until March because SaTH has only just released a substantial quantity of information to the inquiry.
A few weeks ago, West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) ran out of ambulances in Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin. Every available vehicle was queuing outside the county’s two major hospitals waiting to hand over patients. Ambulance handovers should be completed within 15 minutes but have been taking up to seven hours. This is nationwide problem but seems so much worse in Shropshire where ambulances often must travel 30 miles or more to the patient and another 30 miles to A&E. Around the same period, one man with a suspected heart attack had to wait seven hours for an ambulance.
That is not the only ambulance issue. At the beginning of October, WMAS closed bases in Oswestry and Market Drayton, both in the North Shropshire constituency, along with Craven Arms and Bridgnorth in the south of the county. There was no consultation with staff or the public and we were assured that it would not affect ambulance response times. We are struggling to get detailed data from WMAS on response times. But we do hear from ambulance paramedics who tell us the closures mean they are getting fewer opportunities to get a break, grab a sandwich and go to the toilet.
Then there is Future Fit. Shropshire is not alone in having hospitals that need a major upgrading to meet growing health demands, especially in a county that has a rapidly ageing population. Future Fit aimed to reshape Shropshire’s hospital services and has been an unmitigated disaster. Planned day care would be in Telford at the Prince Royal Hospital (PRH) and the single A&E would be in Shrewsbury at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. The Future Fit project’s cost has grown to £533 million from its original £312m budget. Seven years after the project began and with around £4m spent on drawing up the plans, not a single brick has been laid. A recent statement that everything is going on swimmingly with the project is barely credible. Not least because the budget deficit of more than £200m in funding is growing.
Future Fit divides the North Shropshire constituency. Those in the east would prefer an A&E at the Prince Royal Hospital in Telford. Those in the west would prefer it to be at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. Proposals for a new “super hospital” on a Green Belt site in between the two hospitals have not gained any support. Many people in Shropshire believe we need to keep both A&Es and both hospitals.
That brings us back to Neil Shastri-Hurst, the Conservative candidate in North Shropshire. In an article for Conservative Home back in 2015, he said the NHS is not fit for purpose and described its services as a commodity to be bought and sold:
“Health rationing has always taken place but perhaps it is time to be more up front and honest about what we can realistically afford in a public system. The public cannot expect that all treatments are available through a nationally funded healthcare service… Healthcare and its provision is no different. It is a commodity to be bought and sold. Let us not pretend otherwise.”
On the NHS at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said:
“Those working on the Covid frontline are not heroes. There are no capes or special powers… A group of dedicated and skilled individuals pulling together for the greater good. While the weekly round of applause is, of course, a deeply humbling and moving scene, I must admit that I have found it slightly embarrassing.”
These two quotes alone show how out of touch Neil Shastri-Hurst is with the public mood and why we must work even harder to ensure he is not elected to replace the disgraced Owen Paterson.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.