THE future of the Countess of Chester Hospital is teetering on a cliff edge.
This is the “very real danger” facing the thousands of patients who use the Liverpool Road facility, according to city MP Chris Matheson who is urging people to back his campaign ‘The Countess Counts’.
And yesterday he received the backing of shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth MP, who joined him in meeting campaigners at the hospital cafe.
One patient, Jean Smith, 67, said she suffered with a serious condition that meant she often needed emergency treatment at a moment’s notice.
“They’ve saved my life here six times in the last year and a half,” she said. “The staff here are brilliant. I for one can’t afford to lose this hospital.”
Mr Matheson chose to launch his campaign after it emerged health chiefs had held private meetings about the possibility of merging the Countess with Arrowe Park and Clatterbridge, Wirral.
If the plans went ahead, services from the three would be combined on a single super-hospital site, potentially in Ellesmere Port, in the next 10 to 15 years.
The option was reportedly discussed as part of the Cheshire and Merseyside Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP), a blueprint of future health service provision at a time when budgets are dwindling.
Mr Matheson told the Leader he had been assured the proposal was merely “blue sky thinking” and not a concrete option – until it appeared in black and white in the annual report of Wirral University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
“The threat is serious, and potentially catastrophic,” Mr Matheson said. “We are on the edge of a cliff. Discussions are going ahead [about the merger] – it’s a very real danger and I intend to kill it off.”
He added: “We need everyone in Chester to get behind The Countess Counts campaign and we want a petition crammed full of names to let the management and ministers know they won’t touch our hospital.”
Both men said there needs to be more transparency in the NHS on every level, and that people should be armed with the full facts and the opportunity to have their voices heard.
“The NHS is underfunded, understaffed and overstretched,” said Mr Ashworth. “It is going through the biggest financial squeeze in its 70 year history.
“My worry is that decisions are being made about provision of services and care based on funding.”
Asked where a Labour government would find the money to boost funding for healthcare, he said that under the Tories billions were being lost in corporate tax cuts and inheritance tax cuts for the wealthiest people.
Recently, Chancellor Philip Hammond earmarked £240 million for the expansion of grammar schools but nothing for the NHS or adult social care, Mr Ashworth said.
“These big changes coming from the government and NHS England are about trying to find £22 billion of efficiency savings, which will turn out to be cuts,” he said.
“Decisions have been made behind closed doors. It has to be very transparent and the public need to be part of the discussions.”
The boss of the trust that runs the Countess has refuted any suggestion that the hospital’s future is under threat.
Tony Chambers, chief executive of the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, echoed the words of MP Chris Matheson’s campaign in a robust statement issued yesterday.
He said: “The Countess is not under threat of closure. We completely agree that The Countess counts.”
Leaked emails and then a public annual report from Wirral University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust suggested health chiefs had been discussing closing the hospital and merging it with two others as a possible cost-cutting measure.
A total of 30 organisations have been contributing to the Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) for Cheshire and Merseyside, which sets out how the healthcare system can remain fit for the future and respond to the growing demands placed upon it.
The trust has stressed that any ideas within the plan will be refined through engagement with communities, NHS staff and other stakeholders such as councils and voluntary organisations.
Mr Chambers said: “The STP won’t do anything to ‘us’ that we don’t want to happen collectively, either as a hospital or a community.”
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