Anger over Southend neonatal unit ‘downgrade by stealth’

Councillors have angrily rejected plans to “downgrade” the city’s neonatal unit and branded it a “death by a thousand cuts” for Southend Hospital.

Last year, the Mid and South Essex NHS Trust – which manages Southend, Basildon and Broomfield hospitals – re-designated Southend Hospital’s neonatal unit, which was able to care for babies from 27 weeks gestation, to a special care baby unit caring for babies from 32 weeks.

It now wants to make the move permanent.

The move has been branded a “downgrade” of the service by campaigners and Southend councillors, however the trust has insisted it is a “re-designation” of services and that a year-long pilot of the scheme was successful.

Speaking at a Southend people scrutiny committee on Tuesday, chairman Tricia Cowdrey feared the move had been planned since 2016 under the former Sustainability and Transformation Plan.

She said: “We can clearly see it was never taken off the agenda and has somehow, perhaps by stealth, taken place under the radar in December 2022. This temporary downgrade was done with a clear lack of transparency and a lack of consultation with staff, patients and partners such as the local authority.”

Pregnant mums who were expected to give birth before 32 weeks and very pre-term babies were transferred to Basildon or Broomfield throughout last year. Staff from the unit were therefore freed up to work on the children’s assessment unit.

Speaking at the meeting, Nicki Abbott, managing director of women’s and children’s services with the Mid and South Essex NHS Trust, said: “During that time there were 14 women that were affected by that cap and had to have their care transferred to another hospital over the course of the year. Just over one family a month.

“There can be up to five babies in the neonatal unit and 50 children in the assessment unit so it is a better use of skilled consultant time.”

Lydia Hyde, Labour councillor for St Laurence ward called for a pause on the plan and investment in the unit of up to £2million along with a recruitment drive.

She said: “Why are we punishing our population by saying we’ve failed so now you’ll have downgraded services. Why do we feel that’s an appropriate way to remedy the situation?”
Ms Hyde added: “The decision is wrong. What we’re seeing in Southend Hospital right now is a death by a thousand cuts.”

Matthew Hopkins, Chief Executive, Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our proposals are absolutely not about downgrading or removing services from Southend Hospital. These proposals mean we will have more expert clinicians in Southend’s Paediatric Assessment Unit and this will benefit hundreds more families in Southend. Our focus is on providing care that offers the best outcomes and high quality care for families while making the best use of the resources we have.

“During our pilot to test this model of working only 14 families were transferred from Southend and this was done well before their baby was born.”

Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter