Carly Jeffrey comments,

It’s now his decision whether to allow or not allow local NHS bosses to close half of the county’s stroke units, including one at Margate hospital which serves Thanet, one of the poorest parts of south east England. Many thousands of people, it’s feared, will be left too far from the emergency treatment they may need.

Until Covid struck, there were six acute stroke units in Kent, all located at district general hospitals. In 2018 plans were made public to shut half of them, leaving just three acute stroke units for the whole of Kent and Medway — a population of 2.2m.

A legally required public consultation followed.

During the consultation, the campaign group Save Our NHS in Kent (SONIK -a grassroots community campaign) exposed the stroke plan’s considerable flaws and there was generally hostile public response. Despite huge protests, the plans were passed in early 2019.

But the fight went on. Medway Council voted to refer back the plans to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and a request for a judicial review was mounted by three parties including SONIK.

In early 2020 the news came through that the judicial review had failed.

The review, campaigners discovered, was all about the letter of the law, and not the spirit. The NHS execs didn’t have to disprove potential dangers and drawbacks – merely stating that they had “considered” them was enough, according to the law.

So hopes now hinge on Matt Hancock. He will look at the recommendations of an “independent panel” but as this is stuffed with business-minded managers and the decision was made by a team chaired by a Conservative peer, campaigners have little hope they will do anything but recommend the plans go ahead.

But what about Hancock himself? The expectation is that he will approve the plans, because they come from the government, and are firmly in line with the Conservatives’ well established approach to NHS services: cutting costs through centralising services — regardless of the impact on patients — and diluting the public impact of the closures by appearing to devolve decision-making locally.

So why is Hancock delaying his decision? One reason may be his fear of bad publicity and how this may affect next year’s county council elections. But a larger issue is how any unpopular closure might be seen to contradict the recent government line that the Conservative party is a generous benefactor to a much loved NHS.

Whatever the outcome, SONIK’s struggle to prevent the decimation of Kent’s stroke services has at least exposed the bogus nature of the public consultation process the NHS execs undertook.

Campaigners’ questions have been avoided, answered only after long delays or only partially answered.

An ongoing pretence of openness and consultation has been maintained — but it has been only a pretence.

This was underlined by an incident in September when Rachel Jones, director of the stroke review, declared publicly that she proposed to work with SONIK and East Kent residents on a “daily” basis, to reassure people about the delivery of stroke services in the locality.

SONIK quickly contacted Ms Jones and invited her to a meeting. Absolutely no response was received, and crucial questions directed to Jones have all been sent to the ‘black hole’ of Freedom of Information requests. Rachel Jones was playing to the gallery: her promise was only for show.

* SONIK’s petition:

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