Baroness Natalie Bennett, a Green Party Peer, spoke out about Shropshire during a House of Lords debate on Healthcare in Rural Areas last week.
In her speech, Baroness Bennett said that rural services have been run down, and poor public transport makes remaining services harder to access. Ms Bennett argued that ‘efficiency’ has meant moving services away from rural areas, leading to a health service that is increasingly centralised at either the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital or Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital. “This is undoubtedly cheaper for the NHS, but the cost is transferred to individuals.” “Cost, age, disability and a lack of transport lead to people either seeking healthcare later, which greatly increases costs to the NHS in the long run, or simply deciding to go without, with significant social, personal and economic impacts.”
Ms Bennett said “It is clear that access has got dramatically worse in recent years.” “Public transport is often simply non-existent. The NHS’s own figures state that 45,000 people live 30 minutes or more away from a GP practice by public transport.”
Her speech also highlighted the loss of midwife-led care in rural areas. “Closure was first mooted in spring 2016, with cost explicitly cited as the issue. There was then a period of short-term closures, often at extremely short notice—as little as two hours—so women would find out on the day they were giving birth that their expected plan for birth simply could not be followed through.” “Although the MLUs remain open as a base for antenatal and postnatal care, there is no out-of-hours service, so if a patient finds themselves with unexpected bleeding or reduced foetal movement at night, they very often have no chance to get care. You might say, “Take a taxi”, but in many rural areas there simply is no taxi available to take.”
Her speech then highlighted the risks to community hospitals. “We see repeated attacks on the whole concept of community hospitals, and we have seen cutbacks and further cutbacks”. Instead of repeated cuts, Ms Bennett called for “a strategy of how they can best be used for local people and the local healthcare system, taking medium acuity patients to relieve some of the enormous pressures that the acute hospitals are experiencing and, of course, making sure that people can visit patients and that patients can remain in and be part of their communities”.
“I have just one more point to make in that area about community hospitals; It is suggested that Shropshire could become a centre for training and education for rural healthcare, perhaps teaming up with Keele University to offer better services to meet local needs”.
Gill George, of Shropshire Telford and Wrekin Defend our NHS, welcomed the Baroness’s speech. “Ms Bennett is absolutely right to highlight the triple whammy to rural communities of health service cuts, centralisation and poor public transport” she said.
Shropshire Green Party Councillor Julian Dean added; “Natalie last came to Shropshire in 2016 and she has always taken a keen interest in rural issues here, so it was good to see her taking the opportunity to highlight the inequality in access to healthcare faced by those in our county who don’t live in Shrewsbury or Telford, which adds another layer of danger on top of the crises with waiting lists, emergency care and access to GPs”.