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Maternity campaign: Health bosses quizzed at public meeting

Crowds mass for the maternity campaign meeting at Maidstone Leisure Centre
Crowds mass for the maternity campaign meeting at Maidstone Leisure Centre

Hundreds of campaigners and activists turned out for what could be the final chance to say no to plans to cut maternity and children's services at Maidstone Hospital.

Hospital bosses want to centralise the services at the new Pembury Hospital when it opens next year. Maidstone would be left with a small midwifery unit.

Opponents to the plan include GPs, politicans, mums and mums-to-be across Maidstone.

They turned out in force at Maidstone Leisure Centre tonight for a meeting called by local members of Kent County Council's health scrutiny committee.

The intention was to launch a final demonstration of the level of opposition to the plans.

The hospital says centralising the services will ensure the highest quality care and will enable it to recruit top medical staff.

We will be updating this page through the evening with the latest news from the meeting. Refresh this page for the latest updates.

6.45pm - It's already been a big week in the campaign to save maternity and children's services at Maidstone Hospital. Maidstone MP Helen Grant (Con), asking a question in the House of Commons, was told by health secretary Andrew Lansley that the support of GPs is essential for any health reconfiguration plan to go ahead. GPs here overwhelmingly oppose the proposed move. That has given fresh hope that the services can be saved, and is expected to be one of the key issues for debate tonight.

7pm - Before the meeting even begins there is a buzz in the hall, as news spreads of the resignation of NHS West Kent chief executive Steve Phoenix, the man running the consultation into the plans to move maternity and children's services from Maidstone. He has taken a senior job at the Strategic Health Authority.

7.25pm - Sue Webb of the Strategic Health Authority tells the crowd that the government has already said unequivocally that the "current proposals should proceed". "We are not reviewing it, nor have we been asked to," she says.

7.30pm - The Strategic Health Authority will be reporting back to health secretary Andrew Lansley at the end of the month. Sue Webb: "When we report we will reflect the full breadth of the views of the local population. We want to be absolutely sure the NHS has listened to you."

7.35pm - James Thallon, a GP based in Tunbridge Wells and spokesman for NHS West Kent, asks the audience if it is "really credible" that health bosses would put forward proposals that would put people at risk. Heckling from the crowd, including some GPs, with cries of "yes it is".

7.35pm - James Thallon: "Pembury will be a genuinely state of the art hospital". More heckling - "How will we get there?"

7.45pm - Apologies - updates are slow because there is no wifi access in Mote Hall.

7.50pm - Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant (Con) gets several ovations with an empassioned speech. "Our community has spoken loud and clear. Patients say no. Borough and county councillors say no. I, as a local resident and mother of two, say no. And 97 per cent of our GPs say no."

7.55pm - Helen Grant: "Choice, we are told by the trust, will be available at a midwifery unit with six beds or by travelling to Pembury, Ashford, Medway or Dartford. Mothers with complications will not have a local choice."

7.55pm - Helen Grant: GPs say "journey times over bad rural roads are unacceptable" to Pembury.

7.55pm - Helen Grant: Andrew Lansley has said yes to Pembury. But he will not decide on Maidstone's maternity unit until the end of the month.

8pm - GP and British Medical Association spokesman Paul Hobday says it is "Alice in Wonderland fantasy" to suggest that cutting services will improve patient care. Says it is a plan devised by the "Mad Hatter".

8pm - Paul Hobday: "We have lost emergency surgery, orthopedics, gynaecology - now it is maternity and pediatrics. A&E will be next. No hospital can lose such a basic service as pediatrics and retain an A&E."

8.05pm - Paul Hobday: "The better-off Tunbridge Wells patients will have a state of the art consultant-led maternity unit while the population of Maidstone will give birth in a Portacabin."

8.20pm - Debate opens to the floor. The main concern is about travel times from Pembury to Maidstone - hold-ups at Colts Hill can make it a longer journey than its 15 miles would suggest. Darren Reynolds, a paramedic from South East Coast Ambulance Trust, says that times quoted for hospital transfers are averages, which "anyone can find on Google Maps".

8.20pm - He says the average journey times is 24 minutes. Fastest is 18 minutes, longest is 30 minutes. A normal car would do the journey in 30 to 40 minutes, he says.

8.25pm - Cllr Gary Cook of Kent County Council says he drove the route personally. Admitting to speeding when he could to simulate an ambulance on blue lights, he says a "perfect run" took 32 minutes.

8.25pm - A GP asks whether consultants who live in Maidstone would be held personally responsible if they cannot get to Pembury in time to deal with a neonatal emergency. The response is that all consultants must live within 30 minutes of Pembury, or stay within 30 minutes whenever they are on call.

8.30pm - A sharp-witted audience member asks whether Maidstone is 30 minutes from Pembury for a consultant. Maidstone Hospital is within the radius, says the trust, but anyone living to the east of the hospital is not.

8.35pm - Cllr Annabelle Blackmore (Con), of Maidstone council, says we are being "hoodwinked" by journey times. The real measure is the transfer time, she says, which is from the point that the ambulance is first called. She suggests transfers would take closer to an hour.

8.40pm - James Thallon says GPs are not unanimously against the plan. He quotes a Yalding GP ("Yalding is near Maidstone," he says) who says that centralising services at Pembury "is the only option". Paul Hobday counters that 97 per cent of GPs oppose the plan.

8.45pm - Richard Hodges, a former chairman of the Maidstone Community Health Council, says that 25 years ago Maidstone was promised a general hospital with all the facilities you would expect. That is being dismantled, he claims.

9.15pm - A mother who says she is clinically trained challenges Dr Wilson Bolsover, a consultant paediatrician representing the trust, on his earlier claim that moving maternity services to Pembury would not directly result in a mother or child losing their life. She says it is impossible to make such a "sweeping statement" as fact.

9.15pm - Dr Bolsover says midwifery units are safe but dodges repeated questions on what happens when an apparently regular birth goes wrong at the last minute. The exchange ends with him admitting that he "would not choose to use the midwifery unit" but that every mother-to-be must make the choice that is best for them.

9.30pm - A series of mothers take the microphone to praise their experiences in Maidstone's maternity unit. Many make the point that Maidstone was promised the services of a full general hospital 25 years ago. One says that families move to the area because it has a full maternity unit. Cllr Paulina Stockell (Con), of Kent County Council and Maidstone council, says the changes will hit poorer families in Shepway and Park Wood the hardest, because they will face the longest, hardest journeys.

9.35pm - James Thallon admits that the downside of the plan is that Maidstone will no longer have a maternity unit, but says that centralising the service will improve the quality on offer to all women and children. The argument returns to how difficult it will be to travel to Pembury from Maidstone.

9.40pm - Cllr Dan Daley (Lib Dem), of Maidstone council, asks whether Maidstone's maternity unit would have a long term future even if it is saved now. Would keeping it running cause a long-term financial problem? Hospital chief executive Glenn Douglas says the question requires a "crystal ball" but says the worst scenario imagined by the trust would be a sudden, unplanned closure of the maternity unit because of financial difficulties. He says a planned closure now will be better for families.

9.40pm - Cllr Daley then asks about bus services. A KCC transport expert admits that while bus travel to Maidstone Hospital is currently good, work on improving links between Maidstone and Pembury has been difficult. The service would be "half hourly at best" and would not run on Sundays or late in the evenings, he says.

9.45pm - We're wrapping up. A midwife says that while it is important that GPs are listened to, midwives' views should also be taken into account. She says many, but not all, agree with the proposed changes to maternity services.

10pm - It ends with a show of hands. The vast majority of the audience say they oppose the plan to move maternity and children's services to Pembury.

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