I’ve always been impatient. Even before I entered the world. My first act was to insist on being born on a busy May Bank Holiday Monday. In my home town of Bridlington, East Yorkshire, the local hospital and its maternity ward did not open for a further nine years, forcing my Mum to suffer the twenty-three mile ambulance journey to Beverley which, even on a good day, would take upwards of 45 minutes. In this case, Bank Holiday traffic made it significantly longer and inevitably more painful. Perhaps also more dangerous.
So it was that I was born in Westwood Hospital in the market town of Beverley rather than the seaside town of Bridlington where I would go on to spend the rest of my childhood and teenage years. I have no particular issue with this, perhaps because Beverley is also a very beautiful and distinctive town. But I recognise that for many people their place of birth is about more than just a bed in a hospital ward. It is a matter of identity.
So it is entirely understandable that those living in Hartlepool, with a population nearly treble that of either Bridlington or Beverley, should question why their children should have ‘Stockton’ or ‘Middlesbrough’ written on their birth certificates. Not to mention the practicalities of distance, traffic and safety in terms of having to be born so far from home.
Yet far from enabling families to reinforce personal identity and gain some degree of comfort and safety at a vital life-changing moment, many of their options are being removed by the decisions of NHS Trusts.
Bridlington Hospital eventually opened to much fanfare in 1989 and my Mum has worked there for twelve years. It is a functional-looking building on the outskirts of the town, at a major traffic intersection but also close enough to the town centre and beaches to offer a sense of security to residents and visitors. It contained a new maternity unit, so that those subsequently born there would be identified as having originated in the town where they would spend their formative years.
There was also a new A&E Department. As a typically adventurous and occasionally accident prone boy/teen I had my fair share of visits to it, which were mostly minor. But it’s amazing how easily such minor incidents can become more serious if not dealt with quickly.
Of course adults and the elderly in particular are equally prone to accidents. My Grandmother, approaching her 90s, once grazed her leg on a public bench in the town centre. At least she thought it was a graze, until made aware of the ensuing bloodbath resulting from her thinning skin and protruding veins. A kind holidaying family volunteered their child’s favourite Disney towel to stop the flow, but by the time an ambulance got her to the hospital she had lost a lot of blood. Thankfully, due to its close location, she was dealt with swiftly and I was able to cycle (being young and car-less) to meet her at A&E. Travelling 20+ miles whilst losing blood could be a different story, and even at my most energetic I’d have struggled to cycle there, leaving her distressed and alone in a strange town.
This is again a relatively minor case but I had plenty of teenage friends involved in more serious incidents that required rapid attention, such as my childhood best friend who was left nearly paralysed in a car-crash (you can see his story, and the charity he went on to set up to support traffic accident victims here).
There are plenty of similar and more serious incidents in towns and cities across the country that are very ‘major’, or that might appear to be minor to the average eye, only to rapidly spiral into something far more concerning due to lack of attention. The important thing in these situations is to get people into the hands of professionals as quickly as possible to improve life chances or prevent decline.
That’s precisely what Accident & Emergency Departments are for: 45 minutes is an awful long way to go in an ‘emergency’ or following an accident where someone is losing blood. Their very purpose is to be close to where people are.
At present we have the ludicrous situation where even someone who is taken ill directly outside the hospital has to phone an ambulance and wait to be taken to another hospital in a different town, during which time they can decline dramatically and even die as a result.
My Mum joined me and hundreds of others at Hartlepool’s ‘Save Our Hospital’ march on Saturday 10th January, walking along the breezy coast from Seaton Carew to the University Hospital, and has been on many similar marches elsewhere. The local hospital that she works at has gone the same way as many others. No sooner had it been opened than it started closing departments. Or ‘transferring’ them elsewhere, which in effect reversed their opening. It no longer has an A&E Department. It also no longer has a maternity ward, and soon-to-be-mothers yet again have to suffer whilst stuck in traffic, their children now officially originating in Scarborough (which falls into a completely different sub-county) or elsewhere.
I understand the argument that much of the major and acute care such as complicated surgery, bypasses and cancer treatments need to be done in the most experienced hands which may sometimes be at larger hospitals in more urban areas. But I simply cannot understand the concept of having something that is designed for use in an emergency being out of emergency-time-reach. Similarly, the huge event of childbirth, often so prone to complications itself, but also central to the individuality of the new life being created, should be available within a proximity that minimises pain, discomfort and potential problems.
It is very easy, but very lazy, to blame changes to services and the shelving of new hospital schemes on government cuts. The reality is that many of these changes or the preparations for them took place under a thirteen year Labour government, and that in Hartlepool both a Labour MP and a Labour council have failed to stand up for the people they supposedly represent.
The local NHS trust, backed by a high-spending and highly-indebted Labour government, has also made poor decisions in moments of hubris, proposing to splash huge amounts of cash on building a new hospital in the middle of nowhere rather than considering improvements and upgrades to existing facilities. It is understandable that such proposals, made during an economic high-point, are questioned at times of recession. Until more sensible decisions are made about the spending of public money, the public will be the ones who suffer.
A strong NHS requires a strong economy. The Conservative long-term economic plan and the reduction of bureaucracy means we have been able to protect and increase the NHS budget by £12.7bn. We have pledged to increase spending on the NHS each year of the next Parliament. This means we can afford to have almost 1,200 more A&E doctors including 400 more A&E consultants than in 2010. We’ve also made a record £700 million available, and planned earlier than ever, to help ease A&E pressures this winter.
How and where that money and those doctors and nurses go is a decision for the local NHS Trusts, but it is quite right that politicians and local people should hold them to account for poor decision making.
Unlike our Labour MP, I will provide that strong voice, holding the NHS Trust to account for their decisions, fighting for services to return to Hartlepool, and defending those that still remain.