Questions are being asked about the future of Chorley nd South Ribble Hospital’s A&E department after it was brought to the brink of closure by acute staff shortages.
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had so many unfilled vacancies that it was nearing the point where it would not have been able to safely operate A&E departments at both Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals.
But at the last moment trust bosses decided that they would breach a national pay cap on agency staff – brought in by the government – in order to get the staff they need.
Trust bosses went to the hospital last week to reassure staff in the face of fears of closure.
Chief executive Karen Partington said: “We have not taken any decision to close the emergency department at either of our hospitals. I can, however, confirm that we are currently facing significant staff shortages within our medical workforce. Whilewe have continued to recruit to our vacancies, a number of factors including national shortages in emergency department doctors and the recent introduction of capped agency rates have affected our ability to fully staff our emergency departments at both hospitals.
“Patient safety is our top priority and we are now in a position where we are struggling to staff both of our emergency departments. We have initially taken the decision to breach the national agency cap in an attempt to secure immediate medical staff cover to prevent patient safety issues. We will be working with the senior clinical team and our commissioners to consider all the options available to us to enable us to continue to provide safe care on both sites.”
A spokesman from the CCGs in Chorley, South Ribble and Greater Preston said: “We are aware of some of the staffing shortage challenges that Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and in turn many NHS providers across the region are experiencing, and we are working closely with the trust to support them with this.”
Concerns have been raised about the future of the A&E department in light of the staffing problems.
Chorley’s MP Lindsay Hoyle said: “I am alarmed that the trust find themselves in a position where staff shortages are so acute that we face the real possibility of having to close accident and emergency.
“While a short-term solution has been found with the trust breaking the national pay cap on agency cap this in itself is not sustainable and I want to know what is going to be done to ensure that the A&E units remain open for the long term.
“I have already discussed this matter with the chief executive of the hospital trust and I have contacted the Secretary of State for Health to highlight the difficulties being experienced here in Chorley.
“Clearly the trust needs to address the issue of recruitment and ensure that we do not reach crisis point where A&E is forced to shut down and I will be maintaining close contact with the trust to monitor this situation in addition to offering any help they require in terms of making representations to the government regarding this matter.”
Steven Turner, organiser of the Protect Chorley Hospital Against Cuts And Privatisation group, said: “We understand that the chief executive of our hospitals is facing an enormous pressure which has resulted in an initial decision which will be in conflict with the government policy regarding agency workers. This decision was made for patient safety but is this just a short-term sticking plaster?
“Whatever is the future of our hospital, we must stand together to protect our services for the sake of this and future next generations. The public at the very least must be consulted about these changes, it’s our hospital!
“The NHS will survive as long as people are willing to fight for it; we believe the people of Chorley are those people.
The price cap was introduced to bring agency workers’ pay in line with pay for staff. From April 1, trusts have not been able to pay more than 55 per cent above the relevant national pay rates for an agency worker.
There are instances when the cap can be broken, including for patient safety, but regulator NHS Improvement could look at the situation in certain instances, for example if a trust is breaching the cap more than other trusts.
The government is being urged to do something to tackle the problem of staff shortages in Lancashire and elsewhere.
Pete Smith, branch secretary for Unison Central Lancashire Health Branch, said: “Due to the continuing imposition of savage cuts by this government including unrealistic agency cap rates, junior doctors contracts and attacks on unsocial hours payments doctors and others are viewing the NHS as a less attractive career choice which means we are now seeing shortages across all healthcare professions. The trust’s current situation is due, in part, to this shortage and Unison and its members within the trust are working together to support the trust in maintaining the services. Unison is extremely concerned at the long-term effects these shortages are having on the ability to continue to deliver services across the two sites and at the effects chronic staff shortages have on patient safety. We will be asking to meet with local MPs and representatives of the trust to discuss these issues and will continue in its campaigns for a free at the point of need, properly funded, publicly-owned NHS.”
A British Medical Association spokesman said: “The NHS is under incredible pressure from rising patient demand, stagnating funding and staff shortages. Services in hospitals and GP practices are buckling under this strain across the country, including in the North West. We need the government to wake up to the reality facing our health service and properly invest in the NHS so that patients get the care they deserve.”