An online petition calling for a consultation on relocating the Whalton Unit in Morpeth to Wansbeck General Hospital for a temporary period has now received more than 650 signatures.
The 30 beds at the inpatient ward, which delivers specialist rehabilitation for frail older patients, will move to its new, temporary, home in Ward 8 at the hospital in Ashington from next Wednesday, with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust saying the decision has been taken to ensure that staffing is as resilient as possible for winter.
The petition was created by Barbara Ross, whose mother, Enid Ross, was in the Whalton Unit several times – including a two-week period before she died in 2012.
Barbara was among those who were given an opportunity to speak at a meeting of Morpeth Town Council’s finance and general purpose committee.
She said: “The sudden announcement about the move of the Whalton Unit seems to us like an after the fact cobbled together response.
“If the reason is winter resilience, then it would be just as easy for staff to come from Wansbeck General Hospital to the Whalton Unit and far more beneficial and less unsettling for patients.
“We need an assurance that temporary actually means temporary and that the trust will continue to hold the current building whilst it also continues to explore other possibilities until the outcome is decided.”
Alasdair Turnbull, who has lived in Morpeth since 1964, said: “Dignity and compassion are what the Whalton Unit stands for and a facility like this should be available near to where we live. Any transport provision to Wansbeck General Hospital will need to be tailored to the requirements of visiting families.”
Chris Hall also brought up the issue of providing tailored transport to the hospital, adding that “visits from family members are absolutely essential” for the people at the unit.
Dr Jeremy Rushmer, executive medical director at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, was present at the meeting and he said: “We have a serious staffing issue at the unit and, realistically, we would be concerned that we wouldn’t be able to maintain the staffing level required to keep it open over the winter period.”
Claire Riley, director of communications and corporate affairs at Northumbria Healthcare, said there would be no eligibility criteria for the transport arrangements that will be put in place.
She and Dr Rushmer reiterated that the move is a temporary measure and a review will take place next summer.
The public was told during the meeting that a Northumberland County Council scrutiny committee would decide whether any long-term proposal to move the unit to Wansbeck would require a public consultation.
There were heated exchanges between Coun Alison Byard and Coun Richard Wearmouth, also a county councillor.
Coun Byard asked: “How many of our (Morpeth) county councillors knew about this move when it was being looked at and why didn’t they mention it so that other members would be aware of the matter?”
Coun Wearmouth said the official announcement was made on the day of the meeting and information coming out on social media ahead of this was ‘not the right way to go about the situation’.
He also said that the ‘excellent’ quality of the care services provided by Northumbria Healthcare should be noted, but the trust should highlight both the advantages and drawbacks of moving the unit.
Coun Andrew Tebbutt said his concern about the move is the level of privacy available at the hospital ward when palliative care, which in some cases will be end-of-life care, needs to be provided.
He added: “I understand the staffing issue, although I’m not happy about it, but I want to make it absolutely clear that palliative care at the hospital location is an extremely important issue.”
Other councillors present said it was important that the trust does everything it can to help give patients a level of privacy they are happy with when they receive such care.
Dr Rushmer said there are side rooms at the hospital that can be used if privacy is a factor and there is a dedicated palliative care unit, adding that it is ‘not in our interest’ to have issues with the standard of the trust’s palliative care.
He also said the trust will ‘try and make the very best of what we have’ and he will take the comments on this issue by councillors ‘back to the team’.
To see the petition, go to you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/consult-the-public-about-the-removal-of-the-whalton-unit-from-morpeth