Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper yesterday said moves to approach the Army to restore round-the-clock A&E services in her Yorkshire constituency were “deeply worrying” .
The proposal, reported in yesterday’s Yorkshire Post, could mean Army specialists helping to staff the unit at Pontefract hospital which has been closed between 10pm and 8am since November due to shortages of doctors.
The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which is also facing a major financial crisis, said it was in exploratory talks with the Army Medical Service.
It comes after Army doctors and nurses were called in to work in A&E at the crisis-hit Mid Staffordshire NHS trust in November due to staffing problems which had prompted fears the casualty unit could be forced to shut.
Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper called on Ministers to explain how NHS hospitals needed help from the Army to keep services open.
She said 12,000 people had signed a petition to restore full services in the town and any extra staff would be welcome.
“But everyone recognises the priority for the Army Medical Service must be the lives and the health of our soldiers and army personnel and this is clearly not a long-term solution,” she said.
“The trust also needs to pursue other avenues to get more doctors in place. It is deeply worrying that two hospitals have now had to seek help from the Army because of the shortage of doctors and the Government needs to explain urgently why they have allowed it to come to this and what action Ministers will take to deliver the doctors we need.”
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said: “There is a well established process by which other Government departments can seek emergency assistance from the MoD.
“To date, no such request has been received by the MoD from the Department of Health.”
Hospital chiefs say they have struggled to recruit middle-grade doctors – senior trainee doctors – to cover overnight shifts at Pontefract’s A&E which only opened a year ago in a new replacement hospital. Last night the College of Emergency Medicine said a survey conducted in June of more than 100 A&E units found nearly a third of middle-grade posts were vacant or filled by locum staff.
It said it had been working since the autumn with health officials to find solutions to the problem and a report is expected by the end of the year.
Vice president Taj Hassan said: “These shortages in middle-grade staffing currently present a significant challenge in providing adequate staffing levels in some departments.
“This is the result of a number of aspects including the significant rise in number of attendances to emergency departments in the UK over the past 10 years.”
Under plans for a major reconfiguration of services likely to be put to local people later this year, the A&E service at Pontefract, described as “clinically unsustainable and costly” by hospital managers, could close altogether.
This would leave patients to travel to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield for treatment even though it struggles to deal with existing numbers of patients.
Hospital managers want to cut the amount of A&E work at Pinderfields by 10 per cent. Some patients in the southern part of the Wakefield district are already being encouraged to travel to Barnsley for treatment but efforts to persuade hospital chiefs in Leeds to regularly accept patients from the northern part of the Wakefield area at A&E units in the city have been rejected.
Doctors work for the Army in a variety of roles ranging from GPs to battlefield surgeons. Doctors and nurses were drafted in to temporarily plug staff shortages threatening safety at Stafford Hospital in November in what was believed to be a first for the NHS in England. Its A&E unit has also been shut overnight.
The Department of Health confirmed it had not approached the MoD for help at Pontefract.
A spokeswoman said numbers of doctors specialising in emergency medicine were rising and it was working to ensure more were recruited.
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