Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has rejected calls for a full review of plans to scale-back women’s and children’s services at a North Yorkshire hospital – but campaigners last night pledged it was not the end of the fight.
The measures – which have provoked a storm of protest – would see full maternity care at the Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, downgraded to a midwife-led unit, meaning pregnant women due to have complicated births would have to travel to Darlington, Middlesbrough, York, Harrogate or even Lancaster to deliver their babies.
Mr Hunt told the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP) to carry out an initial review of the controversial proposals, after North Yorkshire County Council’s Scrutiny of Health Committee voted to refer the issue to the Health Secretary.
However, after receiving the IRP’s report, Mr Hunt has now decided that a full review will not be necessary and has said public talks on the issue should now go ahead.
But last night the chairman of the county council’s scrutiny committee, Coun Jim Clark, pledged the decision did not mean the end of the fight to keep consultant-led maternity services at the Friarage.
In his letter, Mr Hunt says: “The consultation may also wish to invite new options and not limit respondents to those listed.”
Coun Clark, said while he is very disappointed an independent review had been rejected, the opportunity to look at additional options through local consultation meant this was “not the end of the road”.
“By looking at further options we still have the chance to secure the highest quality provision for this large rural area,” he said.
NHS chiefs have backed measures which risk losing round-the-clock children’s services and full maternity care and wanted to carry out a public consultation on proposals which could mean higher-risk births and inpatient care for youngsters would take place at neighbouring hospitals.
The process was halted in October when it became clear councillors planned to refer the issue to the Health Secretary for an independent review over claims that other solutions to retain specialist care in Northallerton should be considered.
NHS bosses have warned that problems in recruiting and retaining specialist staff in Northallerton will mean services for higher-risk pregnancies and children needing overnight hospital stays will become unviable.
Services were temporarily closed in 2009 due to staff shortages and problems providing specialist cover are expected to be exacerbated in future.
Campaigners have raised concerns about the distances women will have to travel to give birth.
Coun Clark said he now planned to hold talks with health bosses to find a way forward.
Dr Vicky Pleydell, clinical chief officer at NHS Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said: “The Secretary of State has given us the go-ahead to start the public consultation and this shows he has confidence in the process we have followed so far.”
She said the CCG wanted talks to get under way as soon as possible but it first wanted to understand the implication of a current review of acute services in Durham and the Tees Valley could have on services it may commission for North Yorkshire.