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Posted on 14 February 2012 at 16:59 GMT

Health workers gagged in Gateshead

When health workers are gagged from speaking out at public consultation meetings, being told they can only intervene as residents, alarm bells begin to sound.

Gateshead's Primary Care Trust (PCT) is threatening to end all children's inpatient services within the borough in cases where over 23 hours of care is needed.

In their public consultation pamphlet they say: 'We plan to create a single dedicated paediatric unit to serve the South of Tyne and Wear area.

This would be located at Sunderland Royal Hospital'. These changes will also effect South Tyneside hospitals.

Currently there is a children's inpatient unit at Gateshead's QE hospital, children can be referred here by GPs, A&E, the local walk-in centre, etc.

The unit used to have around 21 beds, but this was reduced to 16. Now the PCT is is threatening to reduce this to eight beds, and children needing over 23 hours care will be moved out of the borough.

Population figures show there are 33,500 children in Gateshead under the age of 15. Eight inpatient beds would be woefully inadequate.

The PCT claims that fewer than half of the overnight beds for children are occupied each night, though it has been pointed out that some nights, particularly through the winter, the wards have been full to overflowing.

The PCT claims that it is consulting people, but other than a few leaflets in the hospital, and one small notice in the local paper, there has been no real attempt to let the people of Gateshead know about the consultation meetings.

Parents and health professionals we have spoken to are concerned about the prohibitive travel costs. The PCT argues that low income families will be given help towards the cost, but many families will struggle to find the travel money upfront, plus some will be just above the cut-off level, and help is unlikely to be given to grandparents etc.

Families with more than one child will also find they have to juggle looking after children at school etc, with extended travel times to a hospital in an unfamiliar area miles away.

Undoubtedly if these plans go ahead, a number of sick children will be in hospital without regular visitors from their families.

Tyneside Socialist Party members

Further report on 17th February:

(posted 18.2.12)

Around 40 people attended the PCT's public consultation meeting on ending all children's inpatient services in Gateshead in cases where over 23 hours of care is needed. One parent had contacted the local press who were also there.

Not one person from the floor, which included parents, grandparents and hospital workers, spoke out in favour of the threats being proposed.

In the PCT's glossy brochure they highlight that 'at times' fewer than 50% of beds in the children's unit are not occupied, however, staff from the QE Hospital reported to the meeting that 'tonight all 16 beds on the unit were full'.

One parent asked what volume of negative responses would it take for them to reconsider their plans. The response was that even two million wouldn't guarantee anything, though admitting they have in the past shelved unpopular ideas.

Two options are being put forward by the PCT. Looking at the options was akin to 'spot the difference'.

Of the four bullet points being proposed, three were exactly the same, including de-facto that inpatient care over 23 hours would no longer be available in Gateshead or South Tyneside hospitals.

The only difference was whether short-stay assessment units would be open for 14 or 24 hours a day. Take your pick between two bad options.

It was also clear that of all the public who were at the meeting, none had heard about it via the PCT, leaving it to trade unionists, socialists and others to raise the issue and effectively advertise the public consultation meeting.

Disgracefully, this included a mother of a severely disabled child, who had never been told about the proposals by the PCT, despite the fact that her child had been admitted 30 times to the Gateshead children's unit for over 23 hours each time.

Concerns were put forward regarding the maternity ward, where already ante-natal classes have been stopped, with pregnant women being advised to 'look on the internet and do your own research'.

The response of the PCT, that maternity services 'will not change, but what happens in the future I do not know' was not reassuring.

The PCT's document sets out that 'We do need to remember that only a small number of children and young people may need to travel further than they do now - according to our estimates no more than four each day'. This would mean that even by their estimates almost 1,500 families would be affected each year!

Clearly those attending the meeting have huge concerns about this attack on Gateshead's children's unit, and did not believe the PCT who said this was not a cost cutting exercise.

As one person commented: 'If it's not a cost cutting exercise, it's clearly just incompetence'.

By the end of the consultation meeting those on the top table all looked dejected. Even the consultant paediatrician, who spoke on the platform on behalf of the PCT, conceded: 'I would passionately like the service in Gateshead'.

Children in Gateshead need a sick children's unit in the borough. Staff from the hospital, parents, grandparents and others from Gateshead are preparing to fight to retain this service.

Elaine Brunskill

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