Lewisham: the most irrational, irresponsible hospital to cut

To cut this well-performing hospital would be to reward failure and punish success.

I was born in Lewisham hospital. My mum was convinced that she’d eaten some dodgy mackerel, but it turned out to be contractions. She was rushed in, and both of us were pretty grateful for the kindness and expertise staff showed in helping a frightened mother deliver a safe birth. So when I heard that Lewisham might be losing most of its maternity and other key services to cuts, I decided to go back and visit.

But walking through the hospital’s glass doors in the bustling heart of South London, I was determined not to be sentimental. Months of covering health news for the Guardian taught me that some closures are inevitable. The left loses credibility by not recognising that. We must be prepared to accept uncomfortable truths. The problem is that this might just be the most irrational, irresponsible hospital to cut:

“Here we are bang in the middle of Lewisham, a real community hospital doing exactly what the government wants,” consultant physician John Miell tells me in the hospital canteen. “We have great health reports from objective sources and our finances are more sound than our neighbours. Now the government are ripping the heart out of this community… If they can close Lewisham, they can close anywhere.”

The facts back him up. Lewisham has ranked in the top forty hospitals in the country for the last four years, and its safeguarding services have just been marked excellent by Ofsted (pdf). Lewisham will not be closing services because of failure; it will be closing to protect other hospitals that are too expensive to close because of bad management and botched PFI contracts. As one doctor put it: “We are victims of our success”.

Matthew Kershaw, the man leading the review, makes no secret of this. He has recommended that Lewisham shut all acute services – children, intensive care and most of maternity – simply so that they don’t compete with others in the South London NHS Trust. It’s the worst example of top-down state control rewarding failure. Weren’t the government’s NHS reforms supposed to be about introducing competition to do exactly the opposite?

If the health secretary Jeremy Hunt agrees to these recommendations on 1 February (or before if rumours are believed that he wants to scupper the demonstration this Saturday), good performance will no longer guarantee any sort of protection against closure. As Lucy Mangan says, every hospital in the country will be at risk.

Doctors are also terrified that the consequences of shutting services in a poor, densely populated inner city area with a booming population and a high birth rate have not been thought through. Campaigners say that the changes will leave the local population of 750,000 with just one A&E department.

“Hospitals to the east and west of Lewisham are already full and have been passing their maternity patients to Lewisham,” says Louise Irvine, a local GP who is leading the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, “The system is already not coping. People are going to die. That’s what we want Hunt to know. He has been duly warned.”

Doctors told me that the local Queen Elizabeth hospital was already transferring children out as far as Margate to cope with over demand. Mums trying to book Kings hospital for births are already being told there is no space. One GP talked about an appendix rupturing in A&E because they couldn’t be seen in time. These stories came from different local hospitals, but everyone felt their position was too precarious to go on the record.

Distance is another problem. Workers for the London Ambulance Service have informally raised concerns about the closure of Lewisham’s A&E department because they know that minutes determine lifetimes. Jos Bell is one local resident who became active in campaigning to save the hospital because of an experience she had a few years ago when she was taken ill and her pulse stopped:

“I wouldn’t have got to Woolwich (the nearest alternative hospital) in time… I would have died in the cab. People will be dropping on route. They are pioneering new treatments at Lewisham. They have saved my life more than once.”

Distance is a bigger problem in poorer areas where car ownership is relatively low. If Lewisham closes its emergency service, some people in Sydenham and Crystal Palace will have to travel for over an hour to get to recommended alternatives.

“For maternity users it’s going to be the most dangerous,” says Jessica Ormerod, a local mother and head of Lewisham’s maternity committee that represents mums in the borough, “They are already vulnerable. Some asylum seekers don’t have the bus fare to get there – at least they can walk to Lewisham.”

Doctors also raised problems of integration – supposedly another key rationale for the health reforms. Right now if a birth goes wrong unexpectedly, mum can be moved to an emergency service across the hall. But under the new proposals, there would be no facilities to do that. If a baby came out with its chord around its neck, patients would have to be transferred by ambulance across town with all the extra risk that brings. I shudder to think of my mum in this position. That could have been me or my little brother.

“We know that most safeguarding failures occur because of a break down between services as people fall through the gap,” says chair of Lewisham’s clinical commissioning group Helen Tattersfield, who maintains the same problem applies to vulnerable groups like self harmers who need social as well as medical support. “If this goes ahead I’ll have patients in five different hospitals and I won’t know they’ll be in the system. It’s a recipe for confusion.”

Kershaw insists that despite extensive consultation, no “viable alternative solutions or proposals been put forward" to solve the challenges faced by the South London Hospital Trust.

If this move made economic sense, perhaps he would have a point. But the Guardian has reported that Kershaw’s proposals would cost £195m to implement, and only deliver £19.5m savings a year. At a time when Lewisham has just invested millions in services that are doing well, this seems wasteful. If you have to close a hospital, why close the one that is doing best?

For many, this is a political decision. Lewisham is a poor area and as one doctor put it, “There is very little to lose when everyone votes Labour here anyway”. The alternative is to close hospitals in Conservative-held areas like Kent, and MPs like Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Julian Lewis have already proven that even Tories can’t justify closures in their own backyard. Some call it “fiscal nimbyism”. Patients and doctors call it understanding the consequences when you’re close to them. Me and my mum can testify to that. 

Editor's note: This piece was edited on 22 January 2013. A reference to St Thomas's hospital had been included in error; this was removed.

A porter pushes resuscitation equipment down a corridor at Lewisham Hospital. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage