Protesters vow to fight on as plan to close Ayr A&E is given the go-ahead
HEALTH campaigners yesterday pledged to fight on to save a hospital's accident and emergency department after plans for its closure were rubber-stamped by the Executive in the face of widespread opposition.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran submitted proposals to shut the A&E department at Ayr Hospital, with emergency services centralised at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock.
But despite a fierce local campaign to save the unit and a petition signed by more than 55,000 people, Andy Kerr, the health minister, yesterday approved the plans.
The decision was described as a "shattering blow" by Ayr Conservative MSP John Scott.
Campaigners expressed fears that longer travelling times would put patients' lives at risk.
Moves to close the A&E are part of a multi-million pound modernisation plan for the health board.
This includes a 50 million investment in hospital and community services, with a new cancer unit and operating theatre facilities planned.
But plans to close Ayr's A&E have been the focus of attention, leading to a protest involving more than 5,000 marchers.
Yesterday Mr Kerr said he had received an "absolute assurance" from NHS Ayrshire and Arran that the A&E at Ayr Hospital would not close until five new community casualty facilities (CCFs) were fully operational.
These units, which will deal with minor injuries, will run in Ayr, Kilmarnock, Girvan, Irvine and Cumnock.
The Executive said the CCF units would handle the majority of emergency cases.
Mr Kerr said the health board was also looking at extending local transport options, reviewing ambulance provision and increasing the number of paramedics before making changes to the A&E service.
"Service change and modernisation is never easy. But the NHS cannot stand still," Mr Kerr said. "I believe NHS Ayrshire and Arran's plans will, over time, transform health services and deliver much improved patient care."
But Mr Scott, who has campaigned with his constituents to keep Ayr A&E open, disagreed with the health minister.
"It's clear that the view of tens of thousands of local residents, who have made absolutely clear their fundamental opposition to the loss of Ayr Hospital's A&E department, have simply been brushed aside by ministers, who are themselves apparently determined simply to push through the Executive's hugely unpopular policy of centralising hospital services," he said.
Mr Scott said because the plans would be introduced over a number of years, there were still opportunities to try to convince officials that the A&E should stay.
"So far as I am concerned, for as long as the A&E unit at Ayr Hospital is still open the fight to save it will carry on," he said.
Malcolm Allan, of the Scottish Health Campaigns Network, said the decision came as "no surprise" but was still disappointing for local people.
"There are real fears about how far people will have to travel to get to their nearest A&E.
"Ayrshire is not the same compact area as is the case elsewhere and that causes much concern."
Mr Allan raised concerns about how the CCFs would operate and the fact that not all would provide 24-hour cover, as with an A&E department.
"It is claimed that 70 per cent of people who present at A&E could be cared for at these minor injury units," he said. "But that still leaves 30 per cent, and what happens to them?
"Many people are worried that they will have to self- diagnose to decide where they need to go."
The SNP's Adam Ingram also condemned the move.
Mr Ingram said: "This comes as a bitter blow to the people of south and east Ayrshire, who have been unswerving in their support for Ayr's specialist A&E department.
"It is important to recognise that support was based on well-founded fears that centralising specialist accident and emergency services at Crosshouse Hospital would endanger lives given transport difficulties. These concerns were particularly acute in the rural Carrick and Doon Valley areas."
HOW A&E CLOSURE PLANS BRING OUT THE BIG POLITICAL GUNS
THE closure of A&E services across Scotland has prompted fury among politicians and health campaign groups.
In the most high-profile case, John Reid, the Home Secretary and former Health Secretary, spoke angrily over the decision to shut an A&E in his Airdrie constituency.
Deputy health minister Lewis Macdonald approved NHS Lanarkshire's plans to close the emergency unit at Monklands hospital.
But the move turned highly political.
The other two hospitals in the area whose A&Es could have been axed were Hairmyres, in the constituency of Andy Kerr, the health minister, and Wishaw in the constituency of Jack McConnell, the First Minister.
Some campaigners claimed that in the year before the Scottish Parliament elections, ministers would never have approved closures that might threaten their seats.
Mr Reid described the decision to close Monklands A&E as "flawed".
"NHS Lanarkshire conspicuously failed to take into account issues of social and health inequality in making the original decision," he said in August.
"By endorsing that decision, Mr Macdonald has not only ignored these important factors, but also the opinions of 50,000 people in North Lanarkshire who signed a petition supporting Monklands A&E."
There are also plans to reduce A&E units in Greater Glasgow from five to two in the coming years, and to set up five minor injuries units.
But there were celebrations earlier this month when plans to close the A&E at Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock were shelved.
The move was seen as a dramatic U-turn after another fierce campaign by local people to keep the unit.
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