Labour plans to cuts hundreds of NHS hospital wards
Last year, the Government asked NHS authorities to come up with proposals to reorganise the service to save money as a result of the recession. Details have started to emerge of what is likely to be a rolling programme of cuts that contrasts sharply with assurances from Labour and the Tories that the NHS was “safe”.
So far, only the plans for London have come to light. Campaigners claimed the proposals threatened services such as casualty and maternity units at 13 out of 36 hospitals in the capital.
The failure of health authorities in other areas to disclose their response has prompted allegations that proposed closures, which could be politically damaging to the Government, will not be published until after polling day.
The scale of the cuts has caused a rebellion among Labour ministers who have openly defied the Government by publicly protesting at closures at their local hospitals.
Next week, health ministers will come under pressure from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to disclose the scale of the plans, with the Tories calling an emergency debate on the issue.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrats’ shadow health spokesman, said the scale of the cuts to hospitals was likely to be “vast”, with potentially “hundreds” of wards closing.
He said: “The Government will be desperate to avoid these cuts ahead of an election. We could end up with the threat of cuts to services being a key issue in the election campaign. The electorate will feel conned if they come out after the campaign.
“It is hard to judge the scale of this but it could be vast. It could be hundreds [of wards]. The savings they have to achieve are enormous. What has emerged in London could be the tip of the iceberg and the public is unaware of the scale of potential cuts.”
Mike Penning, the Tory shadow minister for health in London, said: “I see no reason why these reports cannot be published before the election. Labour must be straight with people about the cuts that they are planning to make to their local NHS.”
The cutbacks are partly as a result of Lord Darzi’s 2008 review of the NHS, which recommended more community based treatment in large GP centres and bigger, specialist treatment centres in hospitals.
Authorities were asked by the Department of Health to draw up plans to implement Lord Darzi’s review. But last year, they were told to reconsider their proposals after the recession.
Opposition parties have claimed that health authorities were considering closing or merging key hospital departments, many of which have received millions of pounds in investment in recent years.
The NHS is coming under pressure to find other savings despite government claims that the health service would be protected from widespread public spending cuts.
In this month’s budget, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is expected to announce that the NHS will have to find savings of up to £10 billion a year. Liam Byrne, a Treasury minister, said last month that hospital buildings were likely to be mothballed as services were moved to community based health centres.
Dr John Lister, the author of the British Medical Association’s recent report on the plans, described the scale of the cuts being proposed as “a disaster”. Threatened hospital closures are likely to become one of the key election issues.
Labour ministers and MPs faced claims of hypocrisy after starting pre-election campaigns to block closures at their local hospitals. Ministers were pictured protesting against closures and writing to residents setting out their opposition. Many fear they will lose their seats if they are seen to back government policy.
Last weekend, David Lammy, the Higher Education minister, was joined by other local Labour MPs when he led a march to “save” the Whittington Hospital casualty department in north London.
The Whittington also faces cuts to maternity services, although £600,000 of public money was recently spent on its new birth centre. Other high-profile Labour MPs campaigning to protect hospitals in their constituencies include Margaret Hodge, the Culture and Tourism Minister who represents the marginal seat of Barking. She has led a campaign to save the Accident and Emergency unit at King George Hospital in Ilford.
Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, also backs the campaign. “I will fight a Labour government, a Conservative government or a Martian government to keep a hospital in my constituency,” he said yesterday.
Last night, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said: “Labour MPs are campaigning on a general election manifesto which would lead to the first cuts to the NHS budget for years, but yet they still try to portray themselves as local champions by protesting against cuts in their own backyards.”