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London borough threatens Health Secretary with legal action over plans to downgrade hospital

Merton Council has sent a pre-action letter to the Health Secretary over his decision not to order a full independent review into plans to close the accident and emergency department and consultant-led maternity services at St Helier Hospital.

The local authority said Matt Hancock, who accepted the advice of the Independent Configuration Panel (IRP), had given no reasons for his decision and failed to take the need to reduce health inequalities into account.

The council is also challenging the independence of the IRP chairman, Professor Sir Norman Williams, whose advice formed the basis of Mr Hancock’s decision.

Merton said that if the Secretary of State did not change his mind and allow a full review to be carried out by the IRP, it intended to start legal proceedings for a judicial review.

The IRP carried out an initial review, following a request made by the council to Mr Hancock. This followed approval by the NHS Committees in Common of the South West London and Surrey Heartlands Clinical Commissioning Groups of a business case to reconfigure health services at St Helier, Epsom and Sutton hospitals.

Under their plans Belmont, which is 1.5 miles south of Sutton town centre, is the preferred location for a specialist emergency care hospital, resulting in services being downgraded at St Helier Hospital, which is 1.5 miles north of Sutton town centre and also on the boundary of Merton.

Merton highlighted how St Helier Hospital was in an area of far greater health needs. It added that it had long argued that the greatest consideration in any reconfiguration should be the impact it will have on health inequalities.

Cllr Mark Allison, the Leader of Merton Council, said: “We have serious concerns about how the decision was reached not to carry out a full review of plans to downgrade St Helier Hospital. In particular, the Health Secretary gave no reasons for reaching this conclusion and it is clear that a number of factors have not been properly taken into account.

“We have therefore written to Mr Hancock, inviting him to reconsider his decision, and if he does not, the council will initiate legal proceedings for a judicial review.

“While we welcome any extra investment in healthcare, it is vital that any new specialist emergency care hospital is located where it is needed most – and this is clearly at St Helier Hospital. Tackling health inequalities is vital, as we have seen during the pandemic, and downgrading St Helier will clearly impact on the ability of residents living in the most deprived parts of Sutton and Merton, who are most disadvantaged, to get the vital care they need.”