Govt 'playing politics' with ward closures

Government denies NHS reorganisation of services is politically motivated
Government denies NHS reorganisation of services is politically motivated

Ministers have denied playing politics with hospital ward closures, following news that an A&E department in a Liberal Democrat marginal seat is to be shut.

Health minister Rosie Winterton rejected claims by the Conservatives that changes to NHS services were being considered in terms of how they could help Labour MPs - or damage their opponents.

Last night, it was announced that Rochdale Infirmary's A&E unit would close in favour of an "urgent care centre" dealing with less serious casualties, as part of about 60 "reconfigurations" across the NHS.

Patients with serious injuries will have to be taken to Bury, Oldham or North Manchester general hospital for treatment, in a move likely to anger local residents.


Rochdale is a Lib Dem constituency - at the last election Paul Rowen MP beat the Labour candidate by 442 votes - and today shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley suggested the cuts were politically motivated.

Emails leaked to The Times today reveal that health secretary Patricia Hewitt met with Labour party chairwomen Hazel Blears and Downing Street aide John McTernan earlier this year to discuss the impact of these NHS reconfigurations.

A Labour party representative was also present, and they were apparently given "heat maps" showing where ward closures coincided with constituencies in which the sitting Labour MP had only a small majority.

"There is a secret political debate going on to try to minimise damage to the Labour party," he told the newspaper.

Later he told Today: "What we need is an NHS that is more independent of this kind of thing. We need and NHS where there are not these sham consultations going on all over the country, where the public are consulted on bogus assertions."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb added: "No one doubts that there must be change in the health service, but people will be outraged to find out this is being planned around the jobs of Labour MPs.

"The NHS is owned by all of us. It is not a plaything of the Labour party.

"What we need is an NHS that is more independent of this kind of thing. We need and NHS where there are not these sham consultations going on all over the country, where the public are consulted on bogus assertions."

However, Ms Winterton has rejected any suggestion of political manoeuvring, telling Today that the meeting with Ms Blears was simply in recognition that she "will want to know about what is happening in terms of the politics of some of this".

"It isn't about Hazel Blears having any influence over the decisions that are taken. That would be quite wrong and that doesn't happen," she stressed.

The minister continued: "Reconfigurations have taken place in the NHS over many years - they reflect changes in medical technology, geographical changes and population changes."

Most of the plans put forward by health authorities "don't actually come to Whitehall and to ministers" but were considered by local cross-party committees.

"There is no way that there is some kind of political manoeuvring. There is a very, very clear process as to how these decisions are made and it is absolutely right that is the case," Ms Winterton said.

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