LETTER: Health services must be the top priority

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As portfolio holder for health and wellbeing at Ashfield District Council I have watched with increasing concern as, in my view, health services in Ashfield descend into chaos.

Let me say at the outset, as someone who has recently experienced serious health issues, I have nothing but the highest regard for the doctors and staff for the care and commitment shown to their patients at all times.

It has been well documented in recent times the problems at Sherwood Forest Foundation Trust, which runs Sutton’s King’s Mill Hospital. Sherwood Forest has made great strides in addressing the clinical issues raised by the Care Quality Commission and hopefully the proposed “merger” with Nottingham University Hospitals will strengthen that progress.

How the merger works out remains to be seen – I am optimistic rather than convinced.

To add to the many problems in our hospitals, we have the junior doctors threatening strike action over their contract dispute.

While the Government is in a battle with the doctors, patients are the unwitting victims of this dispute.

Both sides must sort it out quick.

Sherwood Forest’s problems go much deeper than the clinical problems – it has serious financial difficulties, as does Nottingham University Hospital, not all due to the burdensome PFI costs.

In simple operational terms, both are millions in deficit.

To add to the problems in secondary care, we now have Ashfield and Mansfield clinical commissioning group issuing a financial warning.

It anticipates it will have a shortfall of £7.2 million for this financial year, on top of which it is required by the Government to make savings of £20m against its budget of £285m.

The CCG is the primary paymasters of our hospitals.

It pays the hospitals for every visit we make.

If the CCG is in financial difficulty, this can only impact on the hospitals and more local primary care services.

We have heard for a long time of the difficulty getting doctor appointments, a problem that has never been successfully resolved I feel.

Now other services are under threat of being withdrawn, like less serious elective surgery operations.

At Ashfield council, we are so concerned by the situation in local health services and its funding difficulties that when considering planning applications, we make a strong case for contributions to be directed to health services in Ashfield.

From one recent planning application, we secured a contribution of £750,000 to a CCG to help improve health services in Hucknall.

Another had a contribution of £110,000.

In just two applications, we ensured £860,000 will be contributed to health services.

It should not be a function of the council to secure funds for local health services.

The latest “big idea” from the Government is the creation of sustainable transformation plans.

The task of STPs is to bring together all the organisations involved in health – hospitals, CCGs, public health etc – to achieve a holistic approach to health.

A recent report has outlined the difficulties the STPs face, which has drawn a statement from David Pearson, the STP chief, that there are “no plans to close local hospitals”, but still a very worrying situation. As Ashfield council’s representative on Nottinghamshire’s Health and Wellbeing Board, we recently received a report on the proposed STP.

The problem here is, that before the ink has dried on the plans, the STP is already identifying a shortfall of £500m to carry out its function over the next five years, as well as make savings of £175m.

On top of the financial difficulty for the STP, the Department of Health is constantly moving the goalposts and changing timelines, not a good basis on which to create sustainable plans.

We constantly hear from the Government that there has been an increase “in real terms”.

I believe this is just political spin.

While I accept there is always a case for making efficiency savings, this is just a cover for the Government’s lack of commitment to the NHS I believe.

It cannot all be down to incompetence, inefficiency and waste.

Just taking the known figures of shortfalls – Sherwood Forest £30m-plus deficit, CCG £7.2m deficit, the STP £500m deficit – there is a projected deficit in funding of close to £540m.

All of this points to serious underfunding from the Government.

It is time for the Government to be serious in its funding of the NHS.

Our people’s health should be the main priority of any Government.

On that measure, the Government has failed miserably.

Councillor Jim Aspinall

Ashfield District Council health and wellbeing portfolio holder