There are new fears that Chorley Hospital’s accident and emergency unit could close again within months.
The issue was raised at Lancashire County Council’s health scrutiny committee yesterday when Chorley borough Councillor Hasina Khan asked for more information about the ongoing crisis in emergency care cover at Chorley and South Ribble Hospital.
She said: “Rumour has it that Chorley accident and emergency is about to close again as early as October. Why is it such a difficult task to recruit a full team at Chorley?”
The unit closed due to a staffing crisis last April and re-opened on half time hours in January.
There has been a long running campaign to get the Chorley emergency department re-opened round the clock, rather than from its current hours of 8am to 8pm.
Professor Mark Pugh, Medical Director of the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, (pictured), revealed the service was having to rely heavily on locum staff and £1.8m had been spent on temporary and locum staff in 2016/17. With extra consultant costs this has risen to between £2.1 and £2.2m.
But he stressed: “That’s a rumour – we are actively staffing the department... We are in as good a position as we have been but no better than at the start of the process ... We do not anticipate we will get to that point.”
But he acknowledged: “The current model of emergency care across Lancashire and South Cumbria is unsustainable in its current format.”
Reminding the meeting that Royal Preston Hospital’s accident and emergency unit also had to be staffed he stressed that Lancashire was seeing the local effects of what is a national concern over staffing and availability of doctors: “We don’t just recruit to Chorley - we recruit to Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Trust for department staff. We have two departments open and need to staff both safely.”
He stressed: “The decision to keep the department open is based on the safety of the service we can deliver...My remit is to provide safe services for our patients. If we have sufficient staff we will do that. If we haven’t then there’s no alternative to make these decisions to either temporarily close the service or move it elsewhere.”
He added:“We’re going actively out of this country now to try and recruit doctors.”.
Professor Pugh presented a detailed report on the staffing crisis and revealed that while there had been 43 job interviews, many on Skype with overseas candidates, to fill the accident and emergency vacancies, (currently six full time equivalent posts), 22 job offers had been made, but only three had been accepted so far.
He told the committee that 17 middle grade doctors are needed to staff a 24 hour services at Preston and Chorley and at present there are 11.8 doctors in post, but some were not available for certain duties such as night shifts. He said: “This is a fluctuant and fluid situation. We have five locums currently working in a. and e.”
There are also three junior doctor locums. He acknowledged that locums could “pick and choose” when they worked and sometimes failed to turn up leaving just two to three doctors on a shift. One had just handed their notice in.
There were also problems recruiting junior doctors, with better pay offers and, for example, £20,000 welcome packages elsewhere.
He said: “Effectively we have a stretched workforce which is constantly being stretched thinner and thinner across two sites. “
He reminded the committee that the Chorley unit had to closed when there were just eight full time doctors. The Trust is also seeking to recruit nurses to train as emergency nurse practitioners. He added: “We have continued to work extremely hard on recruiting doctors - we need to make sure we have a sustainable and safe service for people in the future.”
Chorley hospital campaigners wearing distinctive yellow campaign T-shirts watched the meeting, with one protester seeking to intervene to ask a question about privatisation of NHS recruitment services. Sue Houldsworth was told questions must be asked by councillors and members of the public are not allowed to speak in the scrutiny meetings.
• An Urgent Care Centre is operating at Chorley 24 hours a day, but without its minor injuries specialism.