Hemel A&E campaign: We grill government health minister

Parliamentary undersecretary for health Ben Gummer (pictured in tank top) during a visit to Watford General Hospital, January 2016
Parliamentary undersecretary for health Ben Gummer (pictured in tank top) during a visit to Watford General Hospital, January 2016

A government health minister has admitted there may be a need for investment in the hospitals serving Dacorum, Watford and St Albans after a site visit.

Ben Gummer, the parliamentary under-secretary for care and quality, visited Watford General Hospital last week for a tour of both A&E and the children’s wards.

In the past few weeks, the hospital’s A&E department has had to turn away people with minor ailments as the unit struggled to cope with the number of patients.

This incident has revived a campaign to bring back Hemel Hempstead Hospital’s lamented A&E department following its closure in March 2009.

When asked whether re-opening the town’s A&E department was the answer to the problems in Watford, Mr Gummer said: “The decision to close Hemel’s A&E was taken many years ago and it is not for me to question the clinicians. I am not an expert.

“I did ask the question, and they said the current set-up works because it provides a better service to patients.

“We’ve actually coped with winter better this year than we did the previous year, but there are always improvements to be made.”

Figures show that from December 2014 to January 2015, the average waiting time in Watford’s A&E was three hours and 31 minutes, with 11,087 patients attending.

A total of 86 per cent of patients were seen within a four-hour window, which is 9 per cent below the national target of 95 per cent.

From December 2016 to January 17 2016, the average A&E waiting time was three hours and 37 minutes, but with 264 more patients being seen in the same window.

A total of 84 per cent of patients were seen within a four-hour window – a further 11 per cent below the national target.

In September last year, the West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust – which oversees all three hospital sites – was given a damning CQC report which highlighted several areas it was failing, including insufficient staffing, ageing equipment and buildings and national waiting time targets.

As a result, the trust was placed into a special measures and an action plan put in place to get the service up to scratch.

Mr Gummer said: “This visit is just so I can see that there’s a plan in place.

“We must remember that this trust has fantastic clinicians, and there were parts of the CQC report that highlighted outstanding practice.

“The important thing is what goes on inside the hospital is of the highest quality.”

When asked if a brand new ‘super-hospital’ for all three towns was another option, Mr Gummer said a redevelopment of the Watford site on Vicarage Road could be a better option.

He said: “Ministers do not make decisions about local services – those are configured by the CCG.

“It is a matter of money – it would cost a vast amount of money to redevelop the site. But I can see a case and I will take this back to Whitehall.

“When the CQC comes back to re-inspect, we shall see if it is enough to get the trust out of special measures.”

Professor Steve Barnett, chairman of the West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “We were delighted to welcome the minister to Watford General Hospital to demonstrate some of the many improvements we have made since our Care Quality Commission inspection last year.”