WHILE people all over the country exchanged rosy cards filled with adoring messages on February 14 this year, Westminster received a rather different Valentine’s Day gift.
A giant heart-shaped card with the message ‘we love our hospitals’ was signed by hundreds of councillors, doctors and residents, all campaigning against the proposed closure of Ealing Hospital services.
What are the plans which have inspired such heartfelt protest?
Under a programme called Shaping a Healthier Future, NHS North West London is proposing dramatic changes to hospitals in Ealing and the surrounding boroughs.
The partnership of Primary Care Trusts plans to invest in local, community-based services in NW London and concentrate specialist care in what are considered to be major centres of excellence.
This would mean that institutions, such as Ealing Hospital, would become ‘local hospitals’ and their services, such as accident and emergency, maternity and paediatrics, would be moved to larger hospitals outside the borough.
Four of nine hospitals in North West London, including Ealing, will have their A&E departments scrapped and replaced with urgent care centres.
The changes will affect the services in Ealing, Hillingdon, Harrow, Brent, Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham and Hounslow.
Despite protests continuing until just days before, these plans were approved by an NHS board meeting on Tuesday, February 19.
The aim of the changes is to improve healthcare, and clinicians driving the proposals believe there is potential for hundreds of lives to be saved each year by improving both primary care and emergency care.
However, many are less than convinced.
Onkar Sahota, a London Assembly member and chair of the Save Our Hospitals campaign, described the proposals as a dismantling of the NHS.
“Ealing will be left with no hospital at all,” he said. “The Government is playing community against community, hospital against hospital and doctor against doctor with the options they are giving us.”
Save Our Hospitals was formed to fight the proposals. The first real battle took place on September 15 when more than 1,000 people from throughout the borough marched and rallied on Ealing Common.
Dr Sahota said the campaign had grown from strength to strength.
The rally showed how passionately people in Ealing feel about their health service. All ages, communities and backgrounds from across the borough came together to have their voices heard.
Debbie Ciric, 76, spoke ardently of how her family had been cared for by Ealing Hospital since they moved to the UK in 1959.
Placards which read ‘People will die’ and ‘Don’t let Cameron destroy our NHS’ summarised worries about the future of their health service.
“These cuts are symptomatic of a government that doesn’t seem to believe in providing basic social services,” said Jaskiran Chohan, 22, of Southall.
Melanie Watts, from Ealing, was concerned that people would have to travel for up to an hour to reach their nearest A&E departments in hospitals such as Northwick Park.
Increased travel times have been cited as a problem by others, including Dr Sahota, who said, even if patients were able to reach hospital quickly by ambulance, there would still be an issue for families aiming to visit their loved ones there.
NHS NW London said the challenge it currently faces is that, with a rising population, there are currently too few specialists in London hospitals to provide high quality 24/7 care.
A spokesperson for NHS NW London said: “We have based this vision of care on improvements and innovations which are already being made in many parts of NW London and the rest of the country.
“This is important because it means the changes are tried or tested ways of delivering healthcare – we already know that they work, that they improve care and that they can be delivered.”
It is the rising population, though, which is causing concern among their opposition.
Dr Sahota said NHS NW London was underestimating the size of the population and, with growing birth rates in Ealing, as well as high rates of heart problems and diabetes, fewer hospitals will have to cope with a far greater demand.
“I think we all agree we need to improve our services,” he said. “On the other hand, let us not forget the population is increasing.
“Their ideas for improvements are based on the wrong assumptions. The premises aren’t there to cope with so many people.”
A public consultation was held last autumn, in which the views of Ealing residents were collected to aid NHS NW London’s decision-making.
More than 17,000 responses were received.
Ealing Council Leader Julian Bell, however, said it was unfair that NHS NW London made its preferred choice clear in the consultation document.
He stressed that Ealing Council would continue to fight to save its hospital.
“This is not the end – this is the next stage of the battle,” he said. “Our campaign will intensify not diminish.”
There are still several review stages ahead before any proposed changes to NW London’s hospitals can be carried out.
Save Our Hospitals will be holding another protest on April 27.