The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acted outside his powers by ordering the closure of wards at Lewisham Hospital, a judge has ruled, as the Government lost its appeal over controversial changes to NHS services in south London.
Mr Hunt’s Department of Health had sought to appeal a high court judge ruling that downgrading services at Lewisham Hospital was unlawful, after local campaigners challenged the Government with a judicial review.
Campaigners branded the appeal “an expensive waste of time” after judges took just 10 minutes to reject it today.
Lewisham, a well-performing hospital, was targeted for cuts by a Trust Special Administrator (TSA) brought in to overhaul services at the neighbouring South London Healthcare NHS Trust, which was losing more than £1m every week and has now been dissolved.
But Mr Justice Silber ruled in July that the TSA did not have the power to recommend changes at a different NHS trust, and Mr Hunt did not have the power to approve them – a decision that the Court of Appeal has upheld.
Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford said that the ruling was a “humiliation” for the Health Secretary.
“He should have accepted the earlier decision and I cannot believe how he justified bringing this to the Appeals Court at such an expenditure of public money, at a time when the Government is urging everyone to tighten their belts. I think this was just bravado on his part,” she told The Independent.
The challenge against the Government was brought by Save Lewisham Hospital and the London Borough of Lewisham.
Rosa Curling, who represented the campaign group said: “This expensive waste of time for the Government should serve as a wake-up call that they cannot ride roughshod over the needs of the people.”
Mr Hunt said he had acted on the advice of doctors who said the proposals to reorganise services in south London, including downgrading Lewisham, “would save lives”.
The Government is now seeking to change the law surrounding the powers of TSAs, so that when an NHS trust is brought into a failure regime, the TSA and the Government can also change services at any hospital within the local healthcare economy.
The changes are contained in amendments to the Care Bill, which has its third reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday afternoon. Any change in the law could not be applied retrospectively to Lewisham, but the Department of Health has not ruled out reviving plans to reconfigure services in south London.
Ms Ruddock said: “If [the amendments] should go through then we will fight every move to try to return to the TSA’s proposals for Lewisham.”
Mr Hunt said: “I completely understand why the residents of Lewisham did not want any change in their A&E services, but my job as Health Secretary is to protect patients across south London – and doctors said these proposals would save lives. We are now looking at the law to make sure that at a time of great challenge the NHS is able to change and innovate when local doctors believe it is in the interests of patients.”
The Labour peer and former health service manager Philip Hunt said that the amendments amounted to “a very dubious way” of reorganising NHS services, which would remove the requirement to consult the public or have the approval of local clinical commissioners.
“I worry this procedure is going to be used frequently to get round the normal consultation processes,” he told The Independent. “My main concern is that this is going to be used as a shortcut to closure without full public involvement, which it seems to me is wrong and counter-productive.”