A BRIERLEY Hill politician and a Hagley doctor are among campaigners urging people to protest before it’s too late against a new health care bill which could permit fast-track hospital closures.

Natasha Millward, Labour’s prospective Parliamentary candidate for Dudley South, and consultant neurologist Dr David Nicholl have voiced their worries over a clause in the Government’s Care Bill which would allow swift hospital closures and reconfigurations in cases where the Government appoints trust special administrators - regardless of the hospital’s performance and the wishes of residents, patients and doctors.

Clause 118, dubbed the 'hospital closure clause', means decisions about local hospital provision could be taken in as little as 40 days and protections that enabled campaigners to overturn a decision by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to close Lewisham Hospital in London would be stripped away.

Health trade unions, The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians and former Health Secretary Andy Burnham MP have all expressed concerns about the detail in the Bill - which is being examined by a committee of MPs before it returns to the House of Commons on February 4 for what's expected to be a final vote.

But the issue has had little discussion in the national press or public arena.

Labour campaigner Miss Millward said: “I am extremely concerned by the speed Clause 118 of the Care Bill is being rushed through Parliament.

"The trigger is a court decision from last year when the High Court stopped Government Minister for Health, Jeremy Hunt, from closing Lewisham Hospital in London.

"The court said he did not have the power to do this. Clause 118 will give this Tory-led government that power.

"Clause 118 would mean fast-track closures - or privatisation - of any hospital, if there is a struggling hospital nearby.

"With the level of cuts in the NHS it will be hard to find a hospital which isn't near a struggling hospital. It won’t matter if the hospital earmarked for change is solvent, gives high quality care and is heavily relied on by the local community.

"It is shocking to see this clause means sweeping changes in health services, without proper meaningful consultation with local people, the CCG and local councillors.

"The Tories are trying to railroad through back-door privatisation of the NHS. If they succeed in passing this through Parliament then no NHS hospital will be safe."

Hagley based human rights and health campaigner Dr Nicholl added: “I’m not against reconfiguration but this is not the way to do it.

"Any hospitals in our area that are deemed failing are under threat. ‘Failing’ is yet to be defined, but could include Russells Hall Hospital, on basis of the Keogh review, or Worcestershire Royal Infirmary or University Hospital Birmingham - on basis of PFI debts.

"If one hospital - even outside our area - gets into trouble other popular and well-run hospitals in our area could be downgraded or shut down to balance the books, under the proposed new rules which would give local people, doctors, and councillors little or no say. That’s an awful prospect."

However - Health SecretaryJeremy Hunt, has defended Clause 118 as "necessary" and in a blog on a national newspaper website he said: "We need the power to turn around failing hospitals quickly and – in extremis – put them into administration before people are harmed or die unnecessarily."

He added that "it is sometimes not possible to solve problems in one hospital without affecting the wider health economy" and he continued: "Special administrators do have to consult even under the powers in Clause 118. However, the process has to happen quickly, because when a hospital is failing lives can be put at risk."

Earl Howe, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Health, said the trust special administrators regime is considered a "last resort" and would be used only in "exceptional circumstances to enable a rapid solution to the intractable problems of a seriously challenged NHS provider where other interventions have failed to deliver improvements".

Anyone worried about Clause 118 can write to their MP urging them to oppose it in Parliament.

People can also sign a petition on the 38 Degrees website https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/jeremy-hunt-should-resign-and-take-his-hospital-closure-clause-with-him