Thanks to the efforts of Jody, Melissa and Sarah and the Fight For Grantham Hospital Campaign, a "walk-in" centre was organised by Lincolnshire Community Health Services Trust that would cover the evening hours between 18:30 and 23:30 but it isn't seen as a replacement for the A&E service, more a temporary stop-gap whilst ULHT focussed on recruiting more registrars and consultants to get the A&E service back open. Once the 3 months of the "trial" were over, managers came back to protestors and announced that the A&E could not re-open as they had only recruited 9 doctors and they were yet to go through an induction period. Melissa Darcey remained unconvinced that ULHT will bother re-opening the A&E again but that she and the F4GH campaign would continue. A 6,000 strong protest was held on the 29th October which demonstrated the sheer unpopularity of the decision to shut the A&E during the early hours of the morning.
When Sleaford and North Hykeham's Conservative MP and Leave voter Stephen Phillips unexpectedly resigned from his seat on the 4th November citing "irreconcilable differences" with Theresa May and the Government over their approach to Brexit, Sarah saw an opportunity to get the Government to listen to Lincolnshire residents' concerns over NHS services and decided to stand as an Independent candidate. As Sarah said during her candidate interview with The Lincolnite, she'd been one of those people who had "shouted at the TV" whenever politicians talked about the NHS or public services but like many working class professionals across the country, Sarah admitted that a "level of apathy had set in because of a feeling that we can't change things". It's not easy when you see a Conservative majority in areas such as Sleaford and North Hykeham that never seems to face a serious challenge Sarah feels she has "woken up from the anesthetic with a passion and anger" so she can fight with gumption against public service cuts. She quite rightly points out that London policies do not work in Lincolnshire and new solutions are needed that work for people within the Sleaford and North Hykeham constituency. Designing service provision that takes into account the needs of all people within the constituency may be difficult but absolutely essential in an age where voters feel services need to reflect exact need. Also there are calls for funding to be devolved to regional areas so they councils, hospital trusts, police forces and schools can take more control over how they spend taxpayers money. Also, voters want to be able to rebuke those who are accountable for delivering those services to make sure they are value for money but also productive and effective.
At the very least, Sarah's presence in the by-election campaign cycle raises awareness of what is currently happening to Lincolnshire NHS services and to air concerns at a regional and national level. It is quite telling that Sarah was the only candidate to consistently back protestors holding nightly vigils outside Grantham Hospital, even the night before the election. That's what real dedication to constituents looks like. Being able to go wherever you are needed in the constituency, whatever time of the day or night it happens to be or how ever warm or cold it may be. An MP should be able to act with strength of their convictions and make policy decisions that allow them to stand up to the Government to hold them accountable, no matter how powerful that Government may appear to the public.
Why is the Grantham Hospital A&E Closure causing so much frustration in Sleaford and North Hykeham?
The NHS is one of the most talked about issues on the doorsteps of Sleaford and North Hykeham and constituents care deeply about trying to prevent further budgetary cuts as well as attempting to reverse cuts that have already been made to frontline hospital services. Support to re-open Grantham's A&E department has cross-party support but the solutions offered by the candidates and timescales seem pretty different. Sarah was the only candidate to mention the 2010 national directive that had a hit-list of 66 hospitals to be permanently closed which Grantham's A&E and Boston Pilgrim Hospital's A&E were mentioned. Over half of the hospitals on the list have already been closed or downgraded. There is a real possibility that emergency care could become centralised and offered only at Lincoln County Hospital where waiting times have increased dramatically and services are stretched in the winter period due to increase incidents of falls, alcohol related injuries and life-threatening infections. So the question is, how will ULHT justify centralisation? It hasn't been discussed widely enough.
Interesting then that a document pertaining to the ULHT's thoughts regarding the future of Grantham and Boston's A&E departments was leaked to the BBC's regional team for the constituency-(BBC Look North) only days before voters go to the polls. Whether this was designed to influence voters to steer clear of the Conservatives or not, the Lincolnshire Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) blatantly shows that that managers at Grantham knew that the ULHT were considering closing the A&E department on a permanent basis but managers have quickly released a statement which confirmed there was "no definite plan" to close it. Campaigners who are part of the Fighting For Grantham Hospital (F4GH) Group were quick to point out that the STP suggests that Grantham A&E might at the very least be downgraded to an "Urgent Care Centre" but they "won't accept this at all". However the closure of Grantham's A&E department wasn't the only recommendation made in the document...there is also some suggestion that maternity services may end up being centralised in Lincolnshire which means that mothers have to make the journey to Lincoln County Hospital if they want to give birth away from home. This could be potentially dangerous. We have barely enough midwives to travel around rural Lincolnshire as it is.
The full STP was released online yesterday afternoon and I've been taking a look at it. On the first page detailing the vision for ULHT, central aims are revealed including reducing "bed stock" by 2019/20 and delivering "a smaller but more resilient acute sector" which would involve a certain amount of centralisation of services by 2019/20. This seems to indicate that there could be a reduction in service at Grantham over the next few years. As you continue reading the document it is clear that ULHT want to downsize their hospital system because they genuine believe it will make it "more resilient and sustainable".(p11) and points to past successes ULHT have had in centralising services such as The Lincolnshire Heart Centre (p11). Such words would not be music to the ears of Sleaford and North Hykeham constituents who want close reasonable access to emergency services as and when they need it. Travelling from Sleaford to Grantham is reasonable; travelling from Sleaford to Lincoln less so.
In the STP, ULHT managers admit that the trust hasn't met their 4 hour waiting target since the summer of 2014 and have far too many patients coming to A&E which has led to "crowded and uncomfortable waits" (p36). The STP also mentions that 40% of people who attend A&E in Lincs leave "without the need for any treatment". Between April 2015 and April 2016, 154,128 people went to A&E but only 40, 727 were admitted to hospital (p36). ULHT are also aiming for 27.5% fewer A&E admissions by 2020/1 which inevitably means more focus on trying to reduce footfall in Grantham and Boston. Quite how that will be achieved seems to be open to debate; no doubt more 101 call handlers will be suggesting patients wait until the morning to visit their local GP surgery or to visit the A&E when the department is fully staffed.
One suggestion made by the STP is the establishment of a 24 hour Urgent Care Centre (UCC) at Grantham. Melissa Darcey and Sarah Stock believe that changing the department without the need for widespread public consultation is wrong. There are differences between an A&E department and a UCC in terms of the types of conditions they can treat: UCCs can treat patients who have sustained minor injuries such as sprains and strains, scalds, eye infections and broken bones but only A&Es can treat people who have sustained major blood loss, lost consciousness, breathing difficulties and chest/stomach pains. This isn't a change of use in hospital space that should be approved without public consultation. On top of this, the STP also reveals that more than 500 posts within the ULHT are expected to go and the jobs cuts won't just be in back office or managerial positions. 375 posts that are classified within the "core skills" category (i.e. front line staff) are earmarked to go, including nurses. At a time when NHS already feel demoralised and overworked, to even think of reducing staff just to reach a short term budgetary goal seems ridiculous.
So it is incredibly important to keep a close eye on what's going on at Grantham and Boston Hospitals. If ULHT management are not considering re-opening the A&E over a long term period as indicated in their STP, protests will continue and the need for more voices to oppose STP cuts will be needed. I'd urge tweeters to follow the Fight For Grantham Hospital Twitter handle...@F4GH and the FB page here...https://www.facebook.com/groups/158598821210992/. Show your support and keep yourselves informed about STPs that may be being formulated within your own hospital trust areas.
Sarah's a breath of fresh air....
Another reason why everyone should be backing Sarah Stock is because her views on Brexit are possibly the most refreshing I have heard from someone wanting to become a politician since June. In some ways I do see the need to look at foreign aid and there has been a lot of scaremongering by both sides of the Brexit campaigner. The real shock was the fact that there wasn't a plan for Brexit.. the Leave campaign did not have a plan. Sarah's a "Soft Brexiteer" because we need the links with the EU that allow citizens who work in the NHS to keep their jobs. The Government needs a clear plan on the table for Brexit and I'm sure that Sarah is glad as am I that May will be made to reveal at least the basic outline of her plan to Parliament so that opposition parties can properly scrutinise it before Article 50 is triggered in March (as the vote taken yesterday provides for).
I want to believe that we will have opportunities that come to Yellowbelly SMEs post-Brexit but we must ensure that we maintain our essential workers rights and environmental protections and not allow them to be burned as part of a bonfire on red tape. Yes some regulations are extremely tedious and we can probably live without them but we must not back down when it comes to safeguarding access Statutory Sick Pay and Maternity and Paternity and Adoption Pay and Statutory Maternity and Paternity Leave for employees. We need to make sure no future Government attempts to weaken the Equality Act or try and get us to back away from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Many Leave voters are passionate about these basic protections and would defend the idea anyone who is a decent, law abiding person should have access to them. Sarah's right when she says we should not attack EU citizens who work in our NHS, study at our university and work in the agricultural sector. Voters may want immigration controls of some kind but that doesn't mean they want to demonstrate a lack of compassion and empathy when it needs to be shown. Nobody in the Lincolnshire area should feel it is acceptable to shout "Leave" at a Lithuanian student on the streets of Sleaford. Nobody should stop serving a Polish agricultural worker because of his nationality. Leave voters I know wouldn't dream of saying such things in public or private and those that voted Remain need to realise that not all Leave voters suddenly upped political sticks and decided to vote UKIP or god forbid, try and revive the fortunes of the BNP. We need to start having conversations that allow us to identify common ground. Accept that your Leave voting Uncle may have had different reasons to vote other than immigration and they should accept your concerns about workers rights and environmental protections. If we can have these frank conversations in our Lincolnshire community centres, pubs and theatre spaces, then people can have them across the country. Be prepared to scrutinise Government plans and point out issues and praise positives in the plans where you find them, regardless of your preference. Then maybe "Brexiteer" politicians and "Remoaner" campaigners on the extremes of the debate can start finding common ground themselves. That's one positive legacy that should come out from Sarah's campaign.
I hope that Sarah does gain a bundle of votes today. If not, I want her to know this. Please consider standing in Grantham for the next General Election if Grantham A&E does not reopen fully and/or Boston maternity services get threatened with downgrading/closure. Your voice would be fantastic to have in the Commons and I bet the people of Grantham would get behind you very keenly now you are in the Yellowbelly public eye!