Jeremy Hunt has ordered a fresh assessment of controversial plans to shut hospital casualty units as one of his first acts as Health Secretary.
His move will raise hopes of a reprieve for a number of accident and emergency departments threatened with closure as NHS trusts cast around for savings. But it will alarm many doctors and hospital managers who argue that merging A&E units into larger, better-staffed departments saves lives and releases money to improve patient care.
Some in the service have privately accused Mr Hunt of preparing to "play politics" without fully understanding the complexities of his new job – which could ultimately harm patients. The issue is coming to a head in London where seven units are at risk, including four in the north-west of the capital, while A&E departments in Manchester, Stafford and Worcestershire are also under threat.
Mr Hunt, who has been charged by the Prime Minister with drawing some of the political sting from the NHS, has told Conservative colleagues he wants a new examination of all the proposals, which he would ultimately have to approve. A source close to him said: "There will be a new approach to this issue. Trusts still need to cut costs, but it doesn't have to be through closures."
Ministers have been struck by the strength of opposition to plans, notably in north-west London, and fear they could pay a political price for decisions taken by hospital chiefs. Under the plans for north-west London, the number of casualty departments would be reduced from nine to five. Thousands have protested against moves to shut Ealing Hospital's A&E unit. Casualty units at Hammersmith, Central Middlesex and Charing Cross hospitals have also been earmarked for closure.
Elsewhere in the capital, units at Chase Farm in Enfield, King George in Ilford and St Helier in Sutton are under threat. The former Health minister Paul Burstow, who lost his job in this month's government reshuffle, has described the plans to close the unit at St Helier, which is in his constituency, as "dangerous". The King George closure has also been attacked by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.
A source in the Department of Health said they were not aware of any political review taking place. However they confirmed that the ultimate decision for A&E closures would be taken by Mr Hunt after taking advice from an independent Reconfiguration Panel.
"You can assume that he will set the bar pretty high for approving closures," said one source. "But he will have to take into account not just the view of the community but also local medical professionals."
A report by the Audit Commission has shown an increasing number of NHS organisations struggling financially. The number of trusts running a deficit rose from 13 in 2010/11 to 31 in 2011/12.Reuse content