You may well have already seen the news that South London NHS Trust – which runs Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich – is on the brink of collapse after being warned it faces dissolution by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley. With debts of £69m recorded in April, the government has warned an administrator could be brought in within weeks, which could see the trust split up and parcelled off to other healthcare providers – including private operators.
It’s the beginning of the end of a misconceived disaster which has cost taxpayers – directly and indirectly – countless millions of pounds. QEH opened in 2001, replacing the old Brook Hospital on Shooters Hill Road and Greenwich District Hospital. GDH was to stand empty for five years before being demolished, and then the site was left empty for a further six years, blighting the community it once served.
As another example of an indirect cost, the re-routing of buses to serve QEH, a former military hospital on Woolwich Common, costs Transport for London £1 million each year.
Under the Private Finance Initiative – introduced by John Major’s Conservatives and continued by Tony Blair’s Labour government – the building was refurbished, and remains maintained by a little-known private sector firm, Meridian Hospital Company, which receives payments from the NHS Trust. This year, MHC is due to get £66.8m under the deal, negotiated in July 1998.
The sums didn’t add up, though. By late 2005, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital NHS trust was declared insolvent. The solution was to merge it with NHS trusts in Bexley and Bromley boroughs – the latter also struggling with PFI debt from the Princess Royal Hospital at Locks Bottom.
From the off, the new, debt-riddled South London NHS Trust struggled. Services at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup were cut back, with patients packed off into Kent. Finally, it seems the whole edifice has sunk. A merged Dartford-Medway NHS trust is already licking its lips and looking at services in Bexley. As for services in Bromley and Greenwich, they face an uncertain future.
An email sent to staff last night from South London NHS Trust chief executive Chris Streather reads:
We are very sorry that by the time that most of you will read this tomorrow morning, you will have heard media reports about the future of the Trust in the news. We were not told of this decision until late today (Monday) and there are certainly issues about the timing and appropriateness of telling staff before the media which we will be taking up.
In spite of the massive improvements in the quality of care – among the lowest mortality and infection rates now in England – it is true that the financial challenges facing the Trust remain significant. Our Trust, our Commissioners and the Department of Health are all in agreement that this needs to be tackled and in a way which is clear and ends uncertainty which I think has been unhelpful for a long time.
For this reason, we are now in discussions with the Department of Health and NHS London to look at the best way forward. One of those options could be the introduction of the Unsustainable Provider Regime, which would involve the appointment of a special administrator to manage the organisation and produce a report on the best way to deliver financially and clinically sustainable services to local patients.
We expect those discussions to come to a conclusion in the second week in July when a decision will be taken by the Secretary of State. In the meantime, I would like to assure you all that we are here to protect the services for patients, we have all fought hard to improve them and that is what we will continue to do.
A carefully handled intervention which maintains the improvements to safety and quality, while sorting out the long standing financial issues which have beset us and the S E London health sector may well be helpful.
Of course, PFI is a failure of our entire political class. Both Labour and Conservative are beholden to PFI, so nobody will call this out for the disaster that it is.
But I can’t help reflecting that this came a week after the Greenwich Labour Party launched a front campaign, The Greenwich People’s NHS Charter – despite their party’s government leaving our own local hospital in a perilously weak state, and facing the very real threat of private firms coming into pick up the pieces.
Nobody knows quite what will happen to the stricken, ill-conceived mess that is Queen Elizabeth Hospital. But there’s a few people, some enriched by these deals, others still holding public office, who owe its hard-working staff, patients, and the rest of us, an apology. Who’ll be big enough to step forward?
PS. I’m told one large organisation in this borough opposed the closure of Greenwich District Hospital and its relocation to Woolwich Common – Greenwich Council. See, not always wrong, you know.