Merton Council to demand proposal to downgrade St Helier Hospital is called in by health secretary

Merton Council will write to the Secretary of State of Health and Social Care asking for an independent review into the proposed decision to downgrade St Helier Hospital by closing acute services, including the accident and emergency department and consultant-led maternity care.

The council’s Healthier Communities and Older People Overview and Scrutiny Panel decided at their meeting tonight (21 July) to send a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, following the approval of the decision making business case by the NHS Committees in Common of the South West London and Surrey Heartlands Clinical Commissioning Groups on 3 July.

The decision-making business case advocates Belmont in the south of Sutton as the preferred location for a specialist emergency care hospital, which means that St Helier Hospital would be downgraded.

The council is challenging this on the grounds that this would mean moving vital health services away from deprived areas and into a more affluent place. The council warns this could lead to patients seeking emergency care at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, which is geographically closer to many Merton residents than Belmont, or deciding not to seek hospital treatment at all.

In the letter, the council also argues that the impact of COVID-19 has not properly been taken into account and it is still too early to ascertain what effect the pandemic will have on planning future health services for the area. A public consultation, run earlier this year, by the former NHS Merton, Sutton and Surrey Downs Clinical Commissioning Groups, branding themselves as Improving Healthcare Together, concluded as lockdown began.

Chair of the Healthier Communities and Older People Overview and Scrutiny Panel, Councillor Peter McCabe, said: “Closing acute services at St Helier Hospital, including the accident and emergency department and the consultant-led maternity service would be detrimental to residents in the most deprived areas of Merton and would result in a substantially inferior health service for patients across the borough and beyond.

“As a consequence, we have therefore decided to ask the health secretary to refer the proposed decision to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, before the final decision is made on the location of the specialist emergency care hospital by the CCGs.”

Council Leader, Councillor Stephen Alambritis, said: “Closing these vital services at St Helier is a terrible decision for thousands of people across Merton who have relied on them, and the hospital, for years. They are, again, being forgotten amid the desperation to save money in local health services.

“The huge impact of COVID-19 on local health services has not properly been taken into account and lessons from the pandemic must be learned before decisions are made about the future of critical health services for Merton residents.”