Extra funds for Bart's hit local health services

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ST BARTHOLOMEW'S Hospital, the 900-year-old institution saved from closure by Tony Blair last year, has become a millstone round the necks of the local residents who campaigned to preserve it.

Doctors and community leaders say people in the area have been duped because the redevelopment of Britain's oldest hospital into a cardiac and cancer centre threatens to drain resources from one of the most deprived parts of the country.

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, has demanded that plans for Bart's put forward by the Royal Hospitals Trust be upgraded to create an "international centre of excellence" in heart and cancer treatment with over 300 beds.

The cost of funding the new hospital, estimated at pounds 20m to 30m a year, will fall on the East London and City health authority. The authority is already pounds 23m below funding target, based on the needs of its population, and GPs and community leaders say the extra cost of Bart's is unaffordable. "East London health will disintegrate. We will just go bankrupt," said one local doctor.

In a letter to Mr Dobson, leaders of the City and Hackney primary care group, representing 150 local GPs, say: "We would be delighted for Bart's to continue to be an internationally renowned centre of excellence, but feel it is unjust to try to fund this out of the allocation we receive to provide basic health services for the poorest people in the country."

The Prime Minister, whose three children were born at the hospital, answered an appeal from Mr Dobson in early 1998 that in the 50th anniversary year of the NHS a Labour government could not close one of the world's best- known hospitals. The decision followed a review of London health services, which recommended preserving Bart's but warned: "The key question is how much more expensive would it be to run a two-site versus a one-site operation?" The Royal Hospitals Trust, which favoured closing Bart's, estimated the extra cost at the time at pounds 26m a year.

Critics say Mr Dobson has resolved to make Bart's his memorial, putting at risk the future of the Royal London Hospital at Whitechapel and swallowing resources needed for improvements in GP services and community care.

Consultants at the trust are split over the proposals. A meeting called for next Friday is expected to hear demands for the closure of Bart's and the building of a single, large hospital on the Whitechapel site, which would be cheaper to run. Others believe that the Government is planning to invest heavily in Bart's and the opportunity should not be missed.