The future of Wantage Community Hospital remains at the heart of a fierce debate with campaigners concerned over provision for south west Oxfordshire.
The hospital’s inpatient unit on Garston Lane in Wantage was temporarily closed in 2016 due to safety fears over legionella bacteria in the plumbing.
Previously sealed-off areas have since been repurposed to pilot outpatient services such as eye, mental health, and ear, nose and throat (ENT) care, as well as GP services.
Inpatient beds were for short-term therapy and rehabilitation rather than the kind of intensive treatment offered in a larger acute hospital, and regional NHS bosses argue that people are now receiving such help in their homes.
However, Julie Mabberley, a long-time campaigner for the restoration of services at Wantage, argues the strain on bigger hospitals, caused by recovering patients having nowhere to go, is an example of why community beds are needed.
In an address to Oxfordshire’s Joint Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee, she said: “Given the significant population growth in the south-east of the county, we look forward to hearing how the community hospital inpatient care and rehabilitation pathways will be provided in our area.
“We are disappointed to note that the report suggests the number of community beds will remain at current levels, even with a growing population.
“The report states that community hospitals have an important role to play in maintaining flow through the whole health and care system, and we believe that not increasing supply in line with the growth in demand puts pressure on other parts of the system.”
Her arguments were supported by Councillor Jenny Hannaby (Lib Dem, Grove & Wantage), cabinet member for community services & safety at Oxfordshire County Council.
“I wonder, with all of this obvious need to reorganise our community hospitals, whether the thinking would go further and take up a former prime minister’s pledge that 40 more hospitals would be built in the regions where there’s need,” she said.
“I would call on the new shapers of our health services to consider taking up that offer and help relieve the pressures on our major hospitals in Oxfordshire by building us a new regional hospital and support services in the south to provide health services to a fast-growing population.
“I would prefer a hospital to a reservoir.”
Dr Ben Riley, executive managing director of primary care and community services at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is important to note, I think, that the care continues to be provided to people in Wantage, albeit in a different location.
“Today, this care is increasingly provided in the patient’s own home, which is as local as we can deliver it.
“If a patient needs inpatient rehabilitation, the data shows the patients from Wantage are usually admitted to either Abingdon, Witney or Oxford, occasionally Wallingford.”
He highlighted that up to January 31 this year, more than 4,000 patients had used services under the pilot schemes and that 90 per cent of those “live locally”, noting that around 150 patients would have been admitted and discharged from the inpatient unit during that time.
“Although these are positive outcomes, I would completely agree that these are pilot services making temporary use of the inpatient unit space,” he said.
“We now need to take forward re-engagement with local stakeholders to review these and jointly develop long-term plans. Part of this work will include discussions on which services local people have valued from the pilots and would like to see there permanently.
“We also need to discuss services that could not be piloted because they would need permanent changes or significant up-front investment, such as a minor injuries unit which needs X-ray equipment and radiographers.
“All of these options need to be considered against the option of restaffing and reopening the inpatient unit.”
Dr Riley added: “I appreciate that some residents may feel this sounds similar to previous workshops that did not deliver for local people as hoped.
“In addition, the recurrent disruptions we have had in the NHS over the past few years, such as the repeated Covid surges, the winding up of Oxfordshire CCG and other events, the industrial action we are dealing with at the moment for example, have damaged trust in the system’s ability to progress this work and I think we need to acknowledge that.
“However, the national and local contexts have changed. We now have a new ICB (Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and West Berkshire Integrated Care Board) team to pick this up and take it forward. I think this is a great opportunity to re-engage and push this on to a conclusion.”