Controversial proposals that would see some key health services from South Tyneside to Sunderland have been backed by an independent panel asked to examine the plans.
NHS bosses, under the Path to Excellence programme, are looking to base all acute stroke services to Sunderland Royal Hospital, and develop a free-standing midwifery-led unit at South Tyneside Hospital - relocating all consultant-led and special care baby unit services to Wearside.
They are also looking at consolidating 24/7 emergency care for children at Sunderland Royal, with a 12-hour daytime service at South Tyneside.
The proposals have met with strong opposition in South Tyneside, with South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, a vociferous critic.
Councillors from both South Tyneside and Sunderland, sitting on a Joint Health and Scrutiny Committee (JHSC), referred the proposals to then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP), chaired by Lord Ribeiro, an eminent surgeon, to examine the suitability of the plans.
The plan is still subject to a judicial review, brought by pressure group Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign.
In a letter sent by the IRP to Mr Hunt, the panel concluded that:
*Consolidation of all inpatient stroke services at Sunderland Royal Hospital is in the interests of local health services.
*Consolidation of all obstetrics, inpatient gynaecology and special care for babies at Sunderland Royal Hospital with a free-standing midwife-led unit at South Tyneside Hospital is in the interests of local health services.
*Further work is required on long term options for paediatric emergency care as part of considering the future of the whole urgent and emergency care system for the area.
*In the meantime, consolidation of emergency paediatric care overnight at Sunderland Royal Hospital (Option 1) will mitigate the current risks to quality and continuity of care.
In his conclusion Lord Ribeiro said: “he panel understands how the options put forward for consultation must have appeared to the population of South Tyneside and why this has sparked genuine concerns about the future of local services at South Tyneside District Hospital.
“At the same time the NHS, facing risks to the safety, quality and continuity of some services, needed to act in the interests of patients.
“Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the process so far, the NHS, the JHSC and their stakeholders must step forward decisively on two priorities that will build confidence for the future.
“First, by addressing concerns related to implementing changes to services, notably ambulance capacity to respond, workforce development and practical mitigations to reduce negative impacts on travel for patients and carers.
“This requires continuing engagement in the planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating of the changes to services to ensure they deliver what is intended for the population served.
“Second, by renewing engagement that will develop better understanding about the bigger picture for health and health care in the area and within it the future of the South Tyneside District Hospital.
“This includes building on the work done so far, including the vanguards in the area, to explore further opportunities for closer working across hospital and community services.
Roger Nettleship, of STHC, said the group would continue to “fight on” in opposition to the plans.
“This seems to go along with the options adopted by the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) that the JHSC and we were objecting to.
“We understand that the Secretary of State has informed the chairs of the Joint Health Scrutiny Committee.
“I think we always knew that the Government is driving forward its five-year forward view to downgrade our hospitals and privatise the NHS and would not listen to the concerns of the people of South Tyneside.
“It was right that the JHSC referred this to the Secretary of State and we thank them for that, but it was pretty obvious that the Secretary of State would back the loss of these services at our hospital and that is why we are continuing the fight to save our 24/7 Children’s A&E, full maternity and stroke services.
“This is why we also have lodged the Judicial Review and now have permission to from the High Court to take them to Court in this Judicial Review.
“Health care is a right and people should be empowered to make the decisions about their health service.
“We fight on!”
Councillors in South Tyneside have spoken of their disappointment at the report’s conclusions.
Co-chair of the JHSC Coun Rob Dix, said: “While it is disappointing that these proposals have, in the main, been given the go-ahead, we take comfort that the Secretary of State recognised and understood our concerns and those of the people we represent.
“We back the Secretary of State’s call for the CCGs to act on concerns we raised such as ambulance capacity to respond, workforce development and the impact on residents having to travel further to receive treatment.
“We would encourage the CCGs to be more forthcoming about the bigger picture of healthcare in the Borough and in particular about the future of South Tyneside District Hospital.
“It is only by working together that we can hope to build residents’ confidence in these plans.
“We are mindful of the judicial review initiated by the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign group and await with interest the outcome of this.”