For as long as most people in our corner of London can remember, St Helier Hospital has been the automatic destination for any emergency care.
In fact, my own two children’s lives were saved at the hospital on the days they were born, both having been born prematurely.
Their dramatic, early arrivals into the world were as anxious as they were joyful. My wife and I were, and remain, eternally grateful for the care our family received all those years ago from the midwives and the specialist neonatal teams.
Of course, my family is just one of thousands across the borough of Merton who rely on our local hospital. Generations of Merton residents have been born at St Helier Hospital, with its consultant-led maternity services on hand for babies who need special care or life-saving treatment in the neonatal unit.
But, now, St Helier Hospital is facing its own health emergency – the threat of being downgraded, and those vital services being moved further away.
Local healthcare bosses, the NHS Committees in Common of the South West London and Surrey Heartlands Clinical Commissioning Groups, have agreed that a new specialist emergency care hospital should be located in Belmont, south of Sutton, rather than at St Helier Hospital.
This means that critical services, including consultant-led maternity services, labour wards and paediatrics at St Helier Hospital, as well as its accident and emergency department, are facing closure.
This is a terrible decision, which means that pregnant women in labour will be forced to travel further from home to unfamiliar surroundings to give birth. They will have had all their pre-natal checks at St Helier Hospital, which will have been downgraded to have even fewer services than a district hospital. There appears to be an assumption on the part of the clinical commissioning groups that more women will choose to have home births, although there is little or no evidence to support this.
It is not just the patients who would be adversely affected by longer, congested, journey times and lack of public transport serving the Belmont site – midwives travelling to their shifts will be affected too, although, surprisingly, no analysis has been done about hospital staff’s commuting times.
I am extremely concerned that the plan has not been thought through properly and that overwhelming opposition from Merton residents in response to a public consultation, held by the clinical commissioning groups earlier this year, seems to have been disregarded. There is a stark divergence between the views of people living in the deprived areas closest to St Helier Hospital and other respondents.
It is clear that the most deprived residents in the hospital catchment area would be most disadvantaged. I have written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, asking them to investigate whether the full adverse impact, particularly on black and minority ethnic communities, of closing critical health services at St Helier Hospital has been properly taken into account. I am questioning whether the needs of BAME communities have been thoroughly evaluated and if their views have been given sufficient consideration. The plans to downgrade St Helier Hospital would result in an unacceptable risk of an inferior health service for residents who rely on acute care the most.
The importance of this has been underlined by Covid-19 – people from BAME communities are more likely to become seriously ill after contracting the virus and pregnant women remain classed as clinically vulnerable by the NHS.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, asking him to call in the proposal to downgrade St Helier Hospital and refer it to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, who can analyse all the evidence in detail before the final decision on the location of the new specialist emergency care hospital is made. It must be in the right place – at St Helier Hospital. Lives will depend on it.