Health minister Steve Barclay is facing a major protest on his own doorstep after the shock decision by doctors to close the village surgery at Sutton near Ely.
The NE Cambs MP is likely to face urgent questioning in the House of Commons after residents alerted opposition health spokesperson Wes Streeting to the growing anger in the village.
Meanwhile local Lib Dem councillor Lorna Dupre has launched a petition “to protect primary health care in Sutton” and within two days it has attracted more than 1,500 signatures.
And residents anger has been fuelled by the revelation that NHS England was advised last November by the Fenland Group Practice that it planned to pull out of Sutton – but it was only this week patients found out.
Cllr Dupre was part of the Priors Field Patient Participation Group (PPG) that met with the executive practice manager and advanced nurse practitioner at Priors Field Surgery, Sutton, on Friday evening “to discuss the events of the last few days”.
The protests – rightly – are directed @SteveBarclay since #Sutton is in his constituency. The reason given for closure of this GP practice, for example, doesn't stand up. Retirement? You don't suddenly say that 'in 6 weeks we've all decided to retire' https://t.co/jDyTkFCXz4
— john elworthy (@johnelworthy) February 23, 2023
She said the PPG was told that the surgery staff had had been instructed by NHS England not to talk about it while NHS England was trying to get other practices to take us on.
Between a rock and a hard place
“To be fair to the staff (and it was the staff we met yesterday, not the partners) that must have put them between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
“The way this has been handled by NHS England and the Integrated Care System has caused distress to thousands of patients here.
“And of course, if they couldn’t find a practice to take us on, or GPs to work here, that begs further questions about the state into which our NHS has been allowed to deteriorate.”
Her petition says that residents of Sutton, Mepal, and surrounding villages in East Cambridgeshire “have been shocked to hear the news that the current GP practice at Priors Field will cease serving our communities at the end of March 2023.
“The population of these growing villages is certainly sufficient to warrant the services of three if not more full-time equivalent GPs in Sutton”.
The petition adds: “Proposals to distribute patients to GP practices in villages miles away in a neighbouring district with which they have little if any connection, are completely inadequate.
“We call on NHS England and on our local Member of Parliament, the Rt Hon Stephen Barclay MP (Secretary of State for Health) to protect primary health care in Sutton and neighbouring communities and ensure the ongoing provision of GP services in Sutton.”
Dai Harding and Mags Richard joined Cllr Dupre to represent the Priors Field Patient Participation Group at the surgery.
Met some residents in Sutton, East Cambs who are dumbfounded by the imminent closure of their only GP surgery.
Listen here for more: https://t.co/h93yL18iKD with @chrismannbbc the item appears at 2h 10m. pic.twitter.com/2GkbbpAi5D
— John Devine (@JohnDevine1961) February 24, 2023
The PPG in a statement afterwards said: “We were told that the Fenland Group Practice had begun to consider late last year the future of services in Sutton.
“It advised NHS England in November 2022 that it would not renew its contract at Priors Field in March 2023.
“Having been unable to recruit to the practice, or find other practices prepared to take it on, NHS England decided in January 2023 that services at Priors Field could not be sustained.”
Their statement added that the 5,959 patients at Priors Field will be allocated by NHS England to a number of different practices around the area. This allocation process will start on Tuesday 7 March.
“The PPG made clear its view to the practice that communication about these events had fallen far short of what residents were entitled to expect,” the statement added.
Practical challenges for villagers
The PPG says their priority is to ensure that health care in some form will be available in Sutton for Sutton residents.
“We are aware of the practical challenges this presents, but believe that this is what Sutton residents want, and we therefore need to continue to press decision makers to achieve it,” said the PPG.
“As part of that process, we will be engaging with the local NHS Integrated Care System. We will keep residents advised.”
Fellow Lib Dem councillor Mark Inskip said: “Sutton is due to move from the North East Cambridgeshire constituency to a new East Cambridgeshire constituency at the next General Election.
“I would however hope that as both the local MP for now, and as Secretary of State for Health, he is concerned about the delivery of GP services in our area. This is a perfect opportunity for him to show where he stands.”
He added: “I am not aware that we know the names of the partners at the surgery who are planning to retire. I would hope that having now ‘announced’ their decision, one of the partners will be willing to explain the background to their decision and the way in which they communicated it.”
Labour Party response
Sutton and Littleport Labour Party said that following the news that Priors Field Surgery is closing and leaving around 6,000 patients unsure about health care going forward, the branch “is doing all we can to help and support those affected.
“Many patients who have no transportation will be effectively cut off and this situation is serious, and people need assurance that they will have an NHS that can count on.”
The branch says it has contacted Labour Party head office looking at ways this can be taken forward.
She has shared her letter publicly.
“’I am writing to bring to your attention (in your capacity as shadow health minister) a situation which has arisen in the constituency of the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Stephen Barclay.
“If it is happening to us, it could happen to any community, and I urge you and your fellow Opposition colleagues to make use of this situation as a warning to others to be careful of voting for a party which is so badly mis-managing our NHS.
“This is a rural constituency, with villages and small towns scattered across the Cambridgeshire Fens, mostly not linked by public transport.
“Our village, Sutton-in-the-Isle, is one of these communities – a sizeable village with a significant number of newly built houses at various stages of construction.”
No warning given
Her letter continued: “Yesterday, without warning, it was announced that our village GP surgery would close on 31st March.
“We are told that the partners wish to retire but cannot find a ‘purchaser’ for their ‘business’. We patients will be allocated to other surgeries in the Fenland Group Practice.
“Those surgeries are at least half an hour’s drive away – and that is for those of us fortunate enough to have our own means of transport. There are no public transport links to them. I leave it to you to work out the implications of this to older people, those with disabilities or chronic illness (and the carbon footprint of Sutton residents).
“The partners had not had the courtesy or professional respect to alert our village pharmacy, neighbouring GP practices, or the district or parish councils before they dropped their bombshell announcement, so none have been able to evolve strategies to support the people in the village are angry, distressed and bewildered.
“I do hope that you and Keir Starmer are able to ask Stephen Barclay some hard questions about this in the House to highlight how the current system of primary care is not fit for purpose.’
Many residents have taken to social media to express their anger and disillusionment at the closure.
Some who have moved to the village are questioning why they were allowed to transfer to the practice, one as recently as two weeks ago.
“I am really very unhappy,” said the resident. “We shouldn’t have been allowed to transfer there knowing it was closing.”
Council’s urgent action
East Cambridgeshire District Council says it is urgently looking into the announced closure of the GP practice at Priors Field on 31 March 2023.
A spokesperson said: “We understand this is due to the current GPs retiring and the practice being unable to find new doctors who want to take on the surgery.
“While we expect to be formally notified of the closure by the NHS on Monday, we are concerned about the impact on residents and the speed at which it is happening.”
The council has contacted MP Steve Barclay “to ask him urgently to look into the issue”.
Council leader Anna Bailey said “We all know the NHS is a stretched resource and I am extremely concerned about the impact of the closure of the GP practice on residents.
“Fenland Group Practice, which runs the surgery, and NHS Cambridgeshire & Peterborough are committed to ensuring all patients have access to high quality GP services and care in the future and our understanding is that they are working to provide a smooth transition for patients to an alternative GP practice.
“However, it is inevitable that many village residents who use the surgery and do not have easy access to a vehicle will be concerned about which new GP practice they are being allocated to, whether and how they have a say in that, and how they will access their new service.
“With stretched local resources, I am also very concerned about the effect of taking on large numbers of new patients on other GP practices.”
“GPs are independent practices and while we as a council, cannot affect the decisions of the Fenland Group Practice we are doing everything we can to raise this at the highest level of Government and we are also exploring any other community support we can provide.”
In the meantime, residents can find out more information here: https://www.fenlandgrouppractice.nhs.uk/news/priors-field-surgery-closure
or attend a drop-in session at the surgery on the following days:
Tuesday 7 March between 10am – 1pm
Wednesday 8 March between 1pm – 4pm