Late plea to Scottish health secretary to halt ‘inhumane’ dementia ward closure

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Health professionals, councillors and a Church of Scotland minister have joined trade unions, patients’ relatives and others in urging Scotland’s health secretary to step in ahead of a key health meeting in Argyll and Bute – set to go ahead despite a coronavirus crisis lockdown.

A meeting of Argyll and Bute Integration Joint Board, which governs the region’s Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP), is set to be held on Wednesday March 25 to set its budget.

On the agenda is a proposal to rubber-stamp the closure of the Knapdale dementia ward in Lochgilphead, which was the subject of protests at the IJB’s last meeting in January. Nearly 3,000 people have also signed a petition urging that the ward be kept open.

Members of trade union UNISON are now urging Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman to ensure that the meeting does not proceed to its published agenda.

Argyll and Bute councillor Kieron Green, who chairs the IJB, said that the meeting was planned to go ahead by video link – but that arrangements could change.

And he also said that in the current circumstances, a number of items on the agenda ‘could well’ be deferred.

Local UNISON representatives said in a letter to health secretary Jeane Freeman MSP: ‘As you know, on January 29 the HSCP IJB took the first contentious step to close Knapdale ward, the only NHS inpatient dementia facility within Argyll and Bute, despite widespread concern from staff, their trade union and the community, as seen through our petition.

‘Argyll and Bute HSCP is only in the preliminary steps of dealing with the outcome of the Sturrock Report into bullying and changing its culture.

‘During the Covid crisis, home care workers in Argyll and Bute have not had access to all necessary PPE [personal protective equipment].

‘Against this backdrop, UNISON has made repeated attempts and calls to the IJB and management not to progress with a business as usual agenda when it meets.

‘Last week we were joined in this call by our sister unions Unite, GMB and RCN. We have also had strong support from local MSP, your colleague Michael Russell, and councillors Dougie Philand and Anne Horn.

‘Our members on Knapdale ward are under tremendous pressure and have confronted the widespread lack of PPE issue. Our home care members are supporting the most vulnerable in unbelievably challenging and worrying circumstances. Workers in Argyll and Bute HSCP are worried as everyone is about their own health and that of their loved ones.

‘They should not have to bear the additional and completely needless additional strain of their workplace and jobs being under threat.

‘We have done everything we can to bring change locally. It is now time for you, as minister, to step in today and instruct that the closure of Knapdale Ward and all cuts that could lead to job and service losses should be removed from the IJB agenda.’

Councillor Green, one of four Argyll and Bute councillors on the IJB, said on Tuesday March 24: ‘At present the meeting is planned to go ahead with members participating through VC/telephone links.

‘I have requested that this be recorded so that press and public can observe/scrutinise any decisions made, although this is unlikely to be able to be made available in real time.

‘Given the current circumstances a number of items on the agenda may well be deferred or amended.’

But the last-minute plea from UNISON has received backing from many others.

In a separate letter to the health secretary, a group including Dr Jan Calder, former locum consultant psychiatrist for Knapdale Ward; Belinda Braithwaite, wife of a former Knapdale Ward patient; Duncan Ferguson, brother of a current patient; Councillor Douglas Philand; Councillor Anne Horn; IJB non-voting public representative Betty Rhodick; and David Carruthers, minister of Ardrishaig and South Knapdale parishes, said: ‘We recognise that Knapdale could be improved and are still convinced that [alternative proposal] Option 4, where the ward remains open, but is repurposed, is the best solution within the overall picture of care for those with dementia and that it can be done within budget if there is the motivation.

‘We therefore ask you to intervene at this late stage in this inhumane plan. Given the ongoing public health crisis and that fact that our attention should be rightly directed there, it would be wrong to proceed with this decision in the face of extensive local opposition and concern.’