John Penrose reclaimed his seat as Weston-super-Mare’s MP a month ago. Since then, Weston General Hospital’s A&E has been temporarily closed overnight. Reporter Sarah Robinson sat down with him to talk about what it will take to regain a 24-hour service.
Weston General Hospital’s A&E has been temporarily closed overnight because the Care Quality Commission says it is not safe. When did you know about the temporary closure?
John Penrose said: “I first saw the report the same day you [the Mercury] did.”
Who are you talking to in Government, and what are they saying about the situation?
Mr Penrose said: “I am talking to health ministers but also to the local health bosses at the hospital and Clinical Commissioning Group.
“If we asked senior medics in Bristol about the right thing for Weston hospital 10 years ago, they and local GPs would have viewed the hospital as a take-over target and for it to be taken over, closed down and everything moved to Bristol. The good thing is everyone seems to agree and understand that is the wrong answer. It makes things worse for the community in Bristol and it is not right for Weston.
“We need to make sure Weston is a long-term part of the overall solution which seems obvious to you and me, but something we would not have found top medics saying a few years ago. That means no-one is talking about shrinking Weston.”
What is the answer to opening it again?
Mr Penrose said: “First of all, the thing which has been really important to support – because it’s part of the answer – is the Sustainability and Transformation Plan which has been in the work for a long time. People were asking ‘how do we fix the long-term problem with the hospital’ a lot earlier.
“The difficulty is those long-term plans should be part of the answer to the short-term temporary closure. If we can get a short-term solution it shows how to get back to functioning again.
“The solution in the past has been to plug staff gaps with temporary or bank staff which costs a lot of money.
“If they can get proper suitable long-term staffing as part of a link up with teaching hospital or hospitals in Bristol and Taunton it saves money to redeploy to other parts of the hospital and staff.
“Adverts for those A&E consultant roles don’t get enough people applying to be able to fill it. Get that done then provides long-term answer to A&E future.”
How long do you think this closure should last and what are you saying to health chiefs and local hospital bosses?
Mr Penrose said: “As far as I’m concerned, it cannot be short enough. I want it re-opened as soon as possible. No one can give me an honest answer on how long that will be because it depends on how long it takes to fix the staffing problems.
“I am saying to them ‘give me a plan on how to fix that’ and ‘how quickly can you do it’. We are supposed to get more details for that coming out later this month.
“Broadly speaking, my message to health ministers and local health chiefs has been to say ‘how long are you thinking?’ and ‘how can we make that time shorter?’ I am not in favour of the A&E closing for good.”
Is there enough ambulance cover while this is happening?
Mr Penrose said: “One of the crucial things about what is a temporary overnight closure of the A&E is the additional items of cost.
“Closing temporarily overnight might be the right thing to do to keep patients safe but one of the reasons it is more expensive is the impact on ambulances. It puts more strain on the on the ambulance service.
“What happens if we are systematically shipping people out of Weston to Bristol and Taunton, is ambulances end up in the wrong places and are not in Weston when we need them.
“At the moment they are hitting their performances targets for the most serious, life-threatening conditions.
“But it’s another argument as to why the temporary overnight closure doesn’t make sense in the longer-term.
“There is a danger ambulances may stay in Bristol more often if they are shipping people up to the M5 and down the M5 in the middle of the night.”
The CCG has presented other ideas for the hospital, which include offering more pre-planned and non-complex operations, performing fewer emergency operations and changing the number of intensive care and high dependency beds. Are you in favour of these ideas?
Mr Penrose said: “I think it is really important not to try to meddle in medical decisions. If our family went to hospital, we want them to get the right, safe treatment. If medics say this is the best way to do it, I think most people would accept their medical expertise.
“It is important for politicians not to pretend we know more about medicine but to say ‘how do we make sure we deliver that in the most effective way?’