Plans to close the A&E department at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary have caused a public outcry in the town. Chris Bond speaks to campaigners battling to keep it open.
ANDRIA Thompson says her son wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the A&E department at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary.
Twenty five years ago, Andria, then a young mother of two living in the Fartown area of Huddersfield, was worried about her 11-month-old son, Michael. “He was a bit of a sickly baby but nobody had been able to diagnose what the problem was,” she says. “This particular Sunday I was round at my parents and I knew something was wrong. I had a gut instinct that it wasn’t flu or a cold.”
Her father called a doctor out who arrived a short time later and after examining Michael concluded he had flu. But sensing something wasn’t right Andria asked her father to drive her home. They stopped on route at a phone box so she could call her GP.
“It was a locum doctor and he was pulling up just as we arrived. He examined Michael and said ‘he’s very ill, we’ve got to get him to a hospital now.’” Michael was rushed to the accident and emergency department at Huddersfield. “When we got there I was told they suspected he was having a major asthma attack,” says Andria.
Thankfully doctors were able to treat him in the nick of time. “I was told that he’d only been able to carry on for 15 minutes, that’s how close it was. At the time I was just relieved that he was ok, but if there wasn’t an A&E at Huddersfield he wouldn’t have made it, he would have died.”
Today, 25 year-old Michael is studying chemical engineering at his hometown university, but Andria, a social care worker, has never forgotten the life-saving treatment he received from the emergency team at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary (HRI), and it’s why she is supporting campaigners opposed to plans to close the A&E department at the hospital, revealed in a report published last month.
A consultation is now underway over plans which could see HRI replaced with a new hospital without an accident and emergency department with urgent cases treated in Halifax instead.
Health bosses from Calderdale and Greater Huddersfield Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) say centralising emergency care at Calderdale Royal Hospital would be safer, and would be paid for with £490m of government funding.
However, the plans sparked an immediate backlash with a campaign launched against the possible closure, and Labour and Conservative MPs joining forces to ask Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to step in.
In a joint letter to the Health Secretary, Labour’s Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman and the Conservative’s Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney argued residents will be faced with journeys of up to 40 minutes to access emergency care and point to analysis suggesting the changes could lead to an additional 157 deaths per year - a figure that Care Quality Minister Ben Gummer has warned against using as he says it is erroneous and would “frighten” people.
The issue was then raised in Parliament this week where the Colne Valley MP led a cross party Westminster Hall debate on A&E services at the infirmary.
But it’s not politicians who are spearheading the campaign, it’s local people concerned by the prospect of one of the biggest towns in the North of England losing its A&E department and seeing services shunted down the road.
Karl Deitch, a father of three from Golcar, in West Yorkshire, set up the Let’s Save Huddersfield A&E Facebook group after his wife messaged him when she heard the news. “I was having a ham sandwich for my lunch and my first reaction was pure disbelief and then I went on to Facebook to gauge what the mood was,” he says.
As it turned out a lot of people were equally concerned. “After about 10 minutes more than 500 people had signed up and by the end of the first night we had over 10,000 members, which was incredible. It’s really struck a chord with people.”
The online petition now has almost 50,000 signatures and supporters hope that it will reach the 100,000 mark required to trigger a House of Commons debate. The campaign has also received the backing of one of the Huddersfield’s most famous sons, Sir Patrick Stewart, who tweeted last weekend that it would be a “grave mistake” to close the A&E department.
For Karl, who runs a Huddersfield-based security business, the campaign has taken over his life. “I’ve not worked much the past couple of weeks because this has taken up so much of my time, but for me the hospital is the most important thing, it’s paramount that it stays open.
“Huddersfield is the 11th largest town in the country and there are some cities that hold less people, so the idea of not having our own A&E is unthinkable.”
Campaigners are planning a series of events over the coming weeks to raise awareness and help generate further support. “I’ve never been involved in something like this before, I’m just a normal guy who runs his own business. But so many people have given up their time it’s become a real community campaign with everyone working together,” says Karl.
“It’s not about politics, this is about trying to save the A&E here and in Calderdale because if one closes it will have a huge impact on the other.”
He hopes that more health experts will start to get involved. “We would like more nurses and GPs to get on board because they can get the message across from a professional point of view which carries a lot of weight.”
As well as the potential strain on A&E services in Halifax any closure might have, one of the chief concerns of campaigners is the impact on an already creaking road network and the length of time it would take to ferry people from places like Slaithwaite and Golcar.
It’s something that worries campaigner Ellie MacDonald, who runs a PR and marketing firm based in Huddersfield. “The Elland Bypass is a nightmare regardless of what time it is but if ambulances are trying to get through during the rush hour then it’s going to seriously put lives in jeopardy,” she says.
Ellie also has concerns about the wider impact if the hospital’s A&E department was closed. “I live here and I hope to raise a family one day but I’d have serious concerns about that if there wasn’t an A&E department in the town.
“I’m an employer in the area and the concern is will other people want to live somewhere that they feel doesn’t have sufficient A&E provision?”
But she is hopeful the campaign, which has brought together people from all walks of life, can prompt a rethink. “It’s not run by MPs or councillors it’s run by ordinary people, and even though we’re a just group of volunteers they can’t ignore us - we’re going to make sure our voices are heard.”
For more information about the campaign go to www.handsoffhri.com
Minister rejects PFI claims
Care Quality Minister Ben Gummer has rejected claims that a private finance deal signed in the 1990s is the reason why medics have proposed to close Huddersfield Royal Infirmary’s accident and emergency department.
Campaigning MPs claim that a cumbersome finance deal signed off by previous Prime Minister John Major to build the Calderdale Royal Hospital will mean the cost will spiral to £773m by 2058. They say it has adversely affected decisions on healthcare in the region, but Mr Gummer stressed that was false.
Tory MP for Colne Valley, Jason McCartney, has described the trust’s PFI deal as having been “ruinous”, but welcomed the suggestion that clinical reasons would determine an A&E closure, because in that case, he said “it’s Huddersfield that keeps its A&E”.