Labour activist to challenge Blair over plight of elderly

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Harriet Yeo will promote her "Forgetmenot" campaign during next week's Labour conference in Brighton in memory of her mother after being appalled at the treatment she received at the William Harvey Memorial Hospital in Ashford, Kent, in March.

The episode convinced Ms Yeo, who has served on three health bodies, that old people are discriminated against by the health service and receive poor levels of care that would provoke national outrage if they were given to other patients.

Her mother, Barbara, a former matron who specialised in care for the elderly, was admitted to hospital with constipation. Ms Yeo believes she deteriorated after being given too much morphine to relieve pain from arthritis. Although she rallied after the dose was reduced, she then contracted a hospital-acquired infection and died aged 83.

Ms Yeo, a trade union representative on Labour's national executive committee (NEC), told The Independent yesterday: "The aim is to ensure hospitals stop discriminating against elderly patients. They need a voice so that they are not walked over and forgotten any more."

She said the consultant and the clinical infection nurse knew that a patient they had admitted to the ward had an infection that could kill her mother but decided it was an acceptable risk. "If my mother had been 53 and not 83, would they have made that decision?" she asked.

What started as a campaign to win better conditions at the Ashford hospital has mushroomed into a national effort on behalf of elderly patients after Ms Yeo learnt of many similar cases across the country.

From next month her campaign will provide advice for the relatives of old people in hospital through e-mails and a website (www.forgetmenotuk.org), promote a charter for "gold standard" care and raise funds for "Forgetmenot nurses" to spread best practice on wards.

Despite her role as an NEC member and Labour councillor, Ms Yeo attacked several elements of the Government's health reforms - including plans to buy in more services from the private sector and slow the rate of growth in NHS spending.

She said its "choice" agenda was "a lie" for the elderly because most are admitted to hospital as an emergency and warned that conditions for old people in poor hospitals will worsen as money is siphoned off to those where other patients choose to have surgery.

Ms Yeo said: "With Gordon Brown saying that he is going to cut money into the NHS and Patricia Hewitt [the Health Secretary] saying she is going to [have] more NHS services outsourced to private providers to facilitate the 'choice' programme, ... facilities for the elderly will be cut first."

She said there was a "ridiculous" amount of bureaucracy in the NHS, with 13 government-funded health bodies or committees in Ashford alone.

The use of the private sector by the NHS will come under fire at the Labour conference. The public service union Unison has tabled a motion demanding a review of the process and the party leadership could be defeated on the issue. Unison and the British Medical Association will attack the "back-door privatisation" of the NHS at a joint fringe meeting to be addressed by Ms Hewitt.

The charter for the elderly will also aim to prevent euthanasia being introduced by the back door. It will call for there to be a presumption that the elderly want to be resuscitated unless they say otherwise.

Elaine Strachan-Hall, director of nursing, midwifery and quality at East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust said: "We are committed to providing high standards of care for all patients. We are unable to go into details about this case as the trust is dealing with an official complaint."

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