The Copeland by-election and the battle to save West Cumberland hospital
There is a mighty battle going on just now in Copeland during the parliamentary by-election, triggered when former MP Jamie Reed resigned. Labour has held the seat since the 1930’s and to lose it now is unthinkable. Yet there is a worrying and prevailing view in the media and elsewhere that we could lose to the Tories. It would be ironic that the very government that is destroying health and care in the country and which plans to downgrade the district hospital in Whitehaven, could win here. Labour has chosen its champion in Gillian Troughton, a local county councillor and former doctor. She has taken her gloves off and is campaigning hard alongside hundreds of activists that are pouring into the constituency from across the UK.
In this election battle we can see the complexity of the provision of health and social care in this country. The health economy in North, East and West Cumbria has two district hospitals alongside eight Community hospitals. In terms of population the area would normally only have one district hospital and probably no community hospitals. The rural nature of Cumbria and its sparse population presents greater challenges to the provision of public services and none more so than the provision of health care. No government has ever successfully found a funding solution to sparsely populated areas covering large geographical areas. The Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle was the first private finance initiative (PFI) hospital opened by the Labour government. Many people see the cost of managing the PFI debt as one of the main reasons why the hospital trust is facing such a major funding gap and which is responsible in turn for the gaps in care and health. Clinical staff are apparently not attracted to working in a place where they believe there is no long-term future which has led to an acute shortage of consultant and other clinical staff in some areas. The savage cuts to social care are in turn putting enormous pressure on health care.
The Care Quality Commission has declared that some of the services at the trust are either inadequate or in need of improvement. This has led to the establishment of a Success Regime in 2015 who are charged with tackling the deep-rooted problems faced in terms of recruitment, finance and service quality. Their response is a series of proposals which if implemented will close all beds in three of the community hospitals, and downgrade A&E, stroke services, children and maternity services in West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven. The public consultation has been fierce at times as the local authorities, the local press, the public, towns and village communities, GPs, consultants, midwives, police & crime commissioner, the Ambulance Trust and trade unions have joined forces to oppose all the proposals that have been put forward by the Success Regime. The opposition against their proposals had been going on for months before the by-election was called. One proposal is to only have a midwife-led maternity service at West Cumberland hospital. Any woman in childbirth and getting into difficulties would be transferred to the Cumberland infirmary by ambulance some 40 miles away. Many believe that this is unsafe. It is regrettable that when asked Theresa May said “a consultant-led maternity unit is unsustainable in Whitehaven.” The Tories are denying women and their babies safe childbirth in West Cumbria.
It is also clear that the Tories don’t want to talk about the NHS, they want to talk about the Labour leadership, about what Jeremy Corbyn once said about nuclear power stations and anything else that will distract people from a spotlight being put on them concerning their handling of the NHS and the cuts to public services. Not one of their election leaflets mentions the NHS. Their candidate is now reduced to saying that she opposes the proposed cuts at West Cumberland hospital and on this matter, she would vote against her government. Having been out on the doorstep in different places across the constituency it is clear local people are very worried about the NHS and they want the proposals made by the Success Regime to be scrapped. There are endless stories that have been recounted of the difficulties people are facing locally in getting health and social care. Local people want to know that they can access health care when they need it and as locally as possible.
This by-election has been an opportunity for Labour to highlight those concerns and in many ways, those concerns are shared by most of the nation. In the end Labour is the party of the NHS and it is for us to lead the fight to ensure we all enjoy decent healthcare. I hope that many years from now the ‘battle of Copeland’ will be the turning point to save the NHS as the Labour party turns public opinion away from the Tories. Labour sees this as a battle to be won, and also as the turning point for the party in winning future elections. There is a great deal at stake and Gillian Troughton is working hard to make this campaign a referendum on the government’s failure during the NHS crisis. From what I can see on the ground in Copeland local people are responding positively to her message.