I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing this debate.
My part of Somerset has some fantastic community hospitals—Burnham-on-Sea, Glastonbury—but I would like to draw particular attention to Shepton Mallet, which provides a valuable and popular service to local people in my area of rural Somerset, despite the fact that several of its buildings are substandard as a result of serious under-investment. Many patients who cannot be treated at home are admitted to our community hospitals by local GPs, who love these places, instead of being sent to acute hospitals in Bath, Bristol, Yeovil and Taunton. Most of those journeys are about 20 to 25 miles, but local people accept that acute hospitals will be some distance away. There is no expectation that we should be able to access an acute hospital on our doorstep in such a rural area.
There are 174 communities in my constituency, and people will happily travel from them to those main hospitals. Some spend time in our local hospitals following treatment at an acute hospital—it is clearly a stage of recuperation—so that they can be close to their home, friends and family. My father was a patient, and he was a frequent visitor to Wells cottage hospital, which is now unfortunately closed. It was an essential part of his recuperation, and there were many happy visits that kept his spirits up and helped his recovery. People came to read or just talk to him.
The point will not have been missed that community hospitals help to free up scarce and much more expensive beds in the bigger hospitals. Some of our patients are there because caring for them in their homes has failed or is just not an option. Many patients are elderly or infirm, as often are their relatives, and visiting distant hospitals regularly is a great hardship, stressful and, for some, impossible. Public transport provision in Somerset is limited at best, diminishing in many areas and in most cases almost non-existent in rural patches, as a direct result of the withdrawal of support for public transport by the county council.
The latest Somerset joint strategy needs assessment on population changes shows rapid increases in elderly patient numbers in the county over the next 30 years—the expected lifetime of most of our NHS estate buildings. In round terms, the number of over-85-year-olds in the county has doubled in the past 25 years and is expected at least to double again by 2030. Two thirds of our NHS patients are already over 65.
The community hospital is cost-effective and provides an essential and popular service to the people of Shepton and those in what is a vast local area. Losing its beds would mean a significant reduction in the quality of
services to the local community. Despite that, Shepton Mallet hospital is under threat of closure. An NHS review of community services for Shepton Mallet is taking place and is focusing on the 17 beds in the community hospital. There is no review of beds in the other 12 community hospitals in Somerset. Campaigners can only assume that Shepton is being singled out, because the NHS has not maintained the hospital properly, despite spending millions on new and other community hospitals. However, in one of the many meetings that I have held with the save our hospital beds campaign group, I was given figures from the NHS that showed that, even as late as this April, bed occupancy has been extremely high. Indeed, April’s figures show the occupancy rate at over 96%.
Last week I was at the summer fete in Glastonbury, and last month I was at the summer fete at Shepton Mallet hospital. I pay tribute to the leagues of friends of the Shepton Mallet and other community hospitals, and to Mid Somerset Newspapers, which publishes the Shepton Mallet Journal. The friends have done a fantastic job of rallying the people of Shepton and the local press, including the Journal, and have generated enthusiastic support for the save our hospital beds campaign over the past few months. I have received hundreds and hundreds of letters, e-mails and petitions, and have attended many meetings about the issue with concerned local people, which only goes to prove that the hospital is popular and greatly valued. There are now definite indications that the sheer weight of public concern expressed and the influence of our great GPs, working quietly behind the scenes, have had an effect. I pay particular tribute to the local GPs, especially Dr Chris Howes, who keeps trying to retire, but has been busier than ever finding a sensible, practical, realistic and workable solution to the problem facing Shepton. The first aim of the save our hospital beds campaign has been achieved, with the immediate threat of ill-considered cuts averted, and proper evidence gathering and an options appraisal process are now taking place. However, the hospital is not yet safe. Closure would result in short-term savings, but losing the beds would mean a significant reduction in the quality of service to the local community.
I finish by asking the Minister for an assurance that the coalition Government are committed to ensuring that local people and local doctors, as well as other health professionals, are consulted fairly and fully about any changes to the role and ownership of our popular, local and essential community hospitals, and that she agrees that none should be closed without agreement and very good cause indeed.
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