The trust which runs King George Hospital in Ilford has been criticised for its “knee jerk” decision to stop treating children’s emergencies overnight.
Redbridge Council’s health scrutiny committee questioned last night (November 5) why the hospital’s NHS trust is closing services due to Covid that other hospitals have kept open.
On November 4, it was announced King George’s children’s emergency department will close nightly from 9pm to 9am later this month, after the inpatient children’s ward closed in May.
Parents whose children have an emergency at night from November 16 will be directed to Queen’s Hospital in Romford, possibly until April next year.
Newly appointed CEO for the two hospitals Tony Chambers said: “I genuinely share your disappointment but we have had to do this because of the impact of the ongoing global pandemic.
“This is a closure is a temporary measure, we are absolutely committed to reopening the department during the night as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
The trust’s chief medical officer Dr Magda Smith explained they suffered with staff shortages even before COVID, which then forced a quarter of their consultant paediatricians to shield.
She said: “We are dependent on temporary doctors to support our service and that adds a fragility to the process.”
“I want to assure you that, if we are able to provide any stability in advance, we would not wait for April to make those changes.”
Dr Morgan Keane, consultant pediatrician for Queen’s Hospital, added it was “a day to day fire fighting exercise to make sure both hospitals are safe”.
He said the trust recruits many doctors from overseas, including the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, and that getting visas is now more complicated due to COVID.
The trust has successfully recruited five paediatricians, although they will not be able to start work until early next year, and are committed to recruiting a further five.
Committee chair Cllr Neil Zammett (Lab, Goodmayes) said there was a “definite lack of confidence” at the council over the trust’s “commitment to providing” services in Redbridge.
He said: “The knee jerk reaction from the trust is, whenever things get difficult for doctors, our services get closed.
“We need to make sure we are not closing our services in Redbridge when other places are managing to keep them open.
“The pressure is on to retreat to (Queen’s Hospital in Romford) but I think it’s clear to everyone that Queen’s could not manage the acute sector and all those services on its own.”
However, he said the committee “have to accept” the commitment by the trust – Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHRUT) – to resume the service.
Cllr Suzanne Nolan (Con, South Woodford) worried the closure would cause Whipps Cross in Leytonstone to be “absolutely overwhelmed with families” not willing to travel to Romford.
She was told by Dr Smith that there are only “single numbers” of children currently attending the department and that the trust “will continue to monitor” numbers.
Cllr Hannah Chaudhry (Lab, Chadwell) replied: “It does not matter if one child attends or 500, every patient matters.
“If this department was open during the first wave, I do not understand why it cannot remain open.”
Cllr Jyotsna Islam (Lab, Aldborough) added: “It appears to be a norm that our health partners are closing sections of the hospital without giving us enough notice or prior discussion.”
The trust was similarly criticised in May, when it closed the inpatient children’s ward at King George Hospital in order to convert it into critical care for COVID patients.
Responding to the concern raised by Cllr Nolan, a spokesperson from the trust which runs Whipps Cross confirmed they were “absolutely fine for paediatric capacity”.
When questioned why they were not suffering similar issues to BHRUT, she said they were “further ahead” in the recruitment process and it had “taken them a good couple of years”.
Cllr Zammett said this suggested the NHS in Barking, Havering and Redbridge was “slow off the mark” in responding to the staffing problem.