Hospital up for sale sparks 'fight to protect it'

PUBLISHED: 10:06 20 May 2013 | UPDATED: 13:36 20 May 2013

Weston Hospital.

Weston Hospital.

Archant

THE future of Weston General Hospital is 'at risk' after it was put up for sale.

Bosses have begun advertising for outside help as its worsening financial position is set to leave them with a multi-million pound shortfall each year.

Out-of-hours children services look likely to be scrapped, as it tries to make itself an attractive proposition to other hospital trusts, voluntary organisations and private companies.

An advert taken in the Official Journal of the European Union reveals Weston Area Health Trust’s (WAHT) need for a partner to join it in 2015.

WAHT needs help as it faces a future annual deficit of about £3.5million after losing a £5million funding stream from the now-defunct NHS North Somerset Primary Care Trust.

In November it began seeking external investment after concluding it was not big enough to convert into a large foundation trust hospital, as required by the Department of Health’s NHS reforms.

The Mercury understands Virgin Care representatives have toured the site, although this week it denied any interest in partnering up with the trust.

WAHT could team up with a private firm, such as Virgin, or look for a bigger trust to help provide services.

But Cllr Mike Bell, who sits on North Somerset Council’s health overview and scrutiny panel, said either option would have a calamitous effect on healthcare.

He said: “Although Weston hospital has had a mixed record over the years, there is no doubt in my mind, that only within the NHS can we deliver the quality healthcare people demand.

“No private company will take over a hospital unless they can make a profit. Any private bidder will hope to not only tackle the historic debts at the hospital but also to siphon off a fat fee for their shareholders.

“How are they are going to do this without it hitting on patient care?

“The very future of Weston’s hospital is at risk as part of this process.

“At worst, we face a buy-out of our local hospital by a private company. At best, a Bristol-based NHS trust will take over and focus on centralising services in the city instead of improving services here.

“There has never been a more important time for us to be loud and proud about our local NHS and fight to protect the services a growing Weston desperately needs.”

One service likely to be culled is its out-of-hours children’s healthcare, with the advert stating parents face an hour-long trek to Bristol or Taunton as Weston cannot guarantee a specialist paediatrician will be available.

The Royal College of Nursing union said the hospital’s potential downgrading brings uncertainty to staff over their future and makes it an ‘unattractive place for nurses to work’.

Its spokesman said it has ‘serious concerns’ that private shareholders’ interests will have priority over patients’.

A WAHT spokesman said there has been a ‘large amount of interest’ but stressed healthcare would remain free for patients whatever happens.

He said: “Whichever option is finally selected all staff and assets will remain within the NHS.

“The services at the hospital will continue to be NHS services, delivered to NHS patients, by NHS staff.”

The trust is continuing to liaise with the NHS Trust Development Authority and NHS England to resolve the financial problems.

Chairman of the League of Friends and Weston MP John Penrose said the more ‘comfortable’ option would be joining forces with another hospital.

But he said if a private company proves it can do the job better than anyone else then it should be given a chance.

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