NHS chief under fire for ‘crisis’ warning

A NEW row has broken out over plans for major changes to maternity and paediatric care in North Yorkshire following a claim that delays by councillors could plunge key services into crisis.

NHS chiefs want to carry out a public consultation over the future of services at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton for pregnant women and children, which would mean that higher-risk births and inpatient care for youngsters took place at neighbouring hospitals.

The process was halted in October when it became clear councillors planned to refer the issue to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for an independent review over claims that other solutions to retain specialist care in Northallerton should be considered.

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NHS bosses are warning 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.

Now Kevin McAleese, chairman of NHS North Yorkshire and York, claims in a report due to be considered by the primary care trust’s (PCT) board on Tuesday that delays in making key changes could trigger a crisis in services from April following the retirement of top doctors.

He said councillors had decided to refer the review to Mr Hunt in November but waited four weeks before sending a formal request on December 20, shortly before the Christmas shutdown.

He said he was sure fellow directors would share the “real concerns” of local doctors that time had been “lost unnecessarily”.

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He added: “It will be entirely regrettable if the well-notified retirements of consultants from the paediatric unit in Northallerton on April 1 subsequently precipitate a crisis which could have been avoided, had all parties concerned shared a common agenda and sought to act with the same eye on the timescales involved.”

Coun Jim Clark, chairman of North Yorkshire County Council’s health scrutiny committee which referred the issue to Mr Hunt, branded the comments “disgraceful”.

“His comments are completely out of order,” he said.

He said delays had been caused because councillors had made efforts to find alternative ways of maintaining consultant-led services at the Friarage, which were in place in other parts of the country, but had not been pursued by NHS officials in North Yorkshire.

He pointed out Tuesday’s meeting, where sweeping plans to reconfigure health services in the county are due to be outlined by NHS chiefs, would come 18 months after a report had warned of the urgency of decision-taking.

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A South Tees NHS trust spokesman said plans were in place to recruit another consultant for the Friarage. If no appointment could be made, existing specialists would provide cover and locum doctors would also be considered.

A separate report to Tuesday’s meeting reveals the PCT’s deficit could be cut to £15m by the end of March. Urgent measures have been taken to make extra savings amid predictions the debts could hit £50m. Officials have been warned the deficit cannot exceed £19m but concerns remain the cash will need to be repaid next year when further massive savings will also be required.