MP urges health bosses to maintain 24/7 hours at Friarage urgent treatment centre

Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, and Rishi Sunak talking to reception staff in the urgent treatment centre at the Friarage.

Rishi Sunak has urged NHS bosses to retain 24/7 working hours of the Friarage Hospital’s urgent treatment centre (UTC), saying the move is essential to re-build public confidence in the Northallerton hospital’s emergency service.

In his formal submission to the public consultation on the future configuration of the service, the Richmond MP said the urgent treatment centre is performing well and his constituents deserve the reassurance of a 24/7 service.

Mr Sunak has however stopped short of calling for the hospital’s accident and emergency ward to be reinstated, as campaigners from the Save the Friarage campaign have pushed for.

Local health commissioning chiefs have been discussing two options for the hospital’s UTC – Option 1 (a 24/7 service) and Option 2 (16-hour opening from 8am-midnight).

The 24/7 option is how the UTC is operating currently following the emergency change from an A&E department in March last year.

Health chiefs moved from an A&E model to a UTC last year, saying could not recruit the anaesthetists and critical care doctors to run a clinical safe A&E at the Friarage.

In his submission to the consultation – which closed last Friday – Mr Sunak said: “Option 2 may appear to have the immediate benefit of costing less to run, but in this instance I believe preserving maximum possible local access should take precedence.

The period when a 16-hour UTC would be closed would be a time when travelling from more distant parts of the area served by the hospital can be most challenging – because of inclement weather and the lack of any public transport alternatives.”

He continues: “Adopting Option 2 would further undermine public confidence in the emergency care service and cause heightened anxiety amongst the wider population (not just those attend the UTC) that should they need the care at some point, it won’t be there.”

The MP said the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the Friarage, needed to get a recruitment and training plan in place to overcome any future staffing challenges.

He pointed to the independent report he commissioned from healthcare consultants Carnall Farrar which recommended the trust adopt a strategy for the retention and retraining of existing nurses and consider a national recruitment drive for emergency nurse practitioners.

“A planned, proactive approach to recruitment should avoid the Trust finding itself in the situation it faced over staffing of the previous A&E,” he adds.

Mr Sunak suggests that the outcome of the consultation presents local health chiefs with an opportunity to change public perceptions about the way the Friarage is managed.

“I believe this decision offers an opportunity to change the perception of the hospital’s future and what has been, hitherto, the dominant narrative about it in recent years, that is the gradual withdrawal of services and leading some to suggest, misguidedly if understandably, that closure is the ultimate aim.”

He said the current 24/7 arrangements had been described to him as a class-leading urgent treatment centre, setting a national benchmark for such a service in a rural setting like Northallerton.

Mr Sunak concludes that the model of emergency care developed in Northallerton by senior clinicians who knew the hospital and the population it serves well should be supported.

“Local NHS management should back their vision and commit to the 24/7 option,” he adds.

“I passionately believe that it is what this community (which has been understanding about many of the unwelcome changes it has experienced at the Friarage over the years) deserves. By committing to the 24/7 option, local NHS management would boldly and clearly signal they fully support and understand their local community. This will help restore public confidence, and further build support for what is a much-loved local facility.”

Holly Wilkinson, from the Save the Friarage group, wrote to Mr Sunak before the end of the consultation urging him to back the campaign’s wish to see a full reinstatement of the A&E department.

However, in his response Mr Sunak said that while he would “love to see a full A&E at the Friarage” he did not believe it was “deliverable”.

A decision by local health chiefs on which option to adopt is expected in a couple of months.