Voters will have any number of issues to consider as they go to the polls in the upcoming General Election. As part of a series of pre-election features, Stuart Arnold considers health and the NHS, concentrating on Darlington

RESIDENTS in Darlington have much to ponder in terms of health with the number one concern, no doubt, the future of their hospital.

There have been fears about Darlington Memorial Hospital ever since the draft publication of the region’s Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP), prompted by NHS England, which could see the hospital lose its A&E and other services. The start of the formal consultation process on the STP proposals was postponed earlier this year, but the plans remain very much on the table.

The issue has united political rivals with Darlington Labour candidate Jenny Chapman joining forces with Richmond Conservative candidate Rishi Sunak to oppose a potential downgrading of the hospital, with Mr Sunak worried about the knock-on effect on Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital.

Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the Tories, Peter Cuthbertson, has also suggested he will oppose cuts at Darlington Memorial, while at the same time warning of the dangers of scaremongering.

Liberal Democrat candidate Anne-Marie Curry, who is a councillor in Darlington, is backing a five point plan by her party to “save the NHS”, while Green party candidate Matthew Snedker says he will campaign for a public NHS in national hands and has described the STP as flawed.

Meanwhile, Mrs Chapman has been vocal about the costs to date of the Better Health programme, which is proposing a new model of healthcare in the region.

But in a town where teenage pregnancies last year rose by 17 per cent and where smoking and obesity rates are still higher than the national average, it is undoubtedly hospital services that are of most concern to the electorate.

As a statutory consultee, Darlington Borough Council formally objected to the STP and its impact on the town’s hospital.

The Northern Echo:

WAITS: Darlington councillor Veronica Copeland says waiting times for GP appointments and hospital operations is an issue in Darlington

Councillor Veronica Copeland, who is on the health and partnerships scrutiny committee at the council and also represents the authority on the board of governors at the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, says: “It’s true that one of the big topics of discussion on the doorstep is the long term future of Darlington Memorial Hospital.

“People are very concerned about the possibility that services might be downgraded and if they lose the A&E along with maternity and paediatrics that may mean they have to travel longer distances.

“Waiting times is another issue. If you have got a bad hip and you are told there is an 18 week wait for an operation and it ends up as 36, that kind of thing resonates with people.”

The Northern Echo: WAITING: Varinder Dhutti says he waited too long for an ambulance after dislocating his shoulder and wants to see what the political parties are planning for Darlington Memorial Hospital

Varinder Dhutti says he waited too long for an ambulance after dislocating his shoulder and wants to see what the political parties are planning for Darlington Memorial Hospital

Varinder Dhutti, who runs a newsagents and off-licence on North Road, Darlington, says he had two distinct experiences with the NHS in recent months and has still to decide which party to trust with local services.

“One day my heartbeat really went up, I thought I was going to have a heart attack and we called an ambulance which came within a few minutes,” he says.

“They took me to hospital and they found out what was wrong within one or two hours. I really appreciated the service I received. However the second time, three or four weeks ago when I dislocated my shoulder, the ambulance came, but it took about 45-50 minutes. I was screaming loudly and crying like a kid.

“I was thinking I would go private and get treatment for my shoulder because they didn’t seem to care. Now I am still in a queue for surgery.

“I want to see what both parties are going to do with the hospital, whether they are good or bad. At the moment I am thinking 60/40 per cent Labour, compared to Conservatives, in terms of my vote.”

Rodney Tull, a former motorway construction worker who lives in Darlington, says: “You can’t live in the town and not be concerned by the plight of its hospital.

“However I fear many of the decisions have already been made, regardless of whichever party provides the next MP. I think the Tories are doing the best they can with the NHS, but it’s a big, outdated beast that is leaking cash and anyone managing it has a big job on their hands.”

The Northern Echo:

Darlington health campaigner Jo Land has claimed lives will be put at risk by proposals contained within the Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP)

Local health campaigner Jo Land, of the group 999 Call for the NHS, says the NHS would be at the forefront of her mind when casting her vote on June 8.

“Decision makers in our area are preparing to make huge cuts to services which could result in Darlington losing A&E and other services. A decision on whether to close consultant-led maternity services will be taken in the next two months.”

She adds: “999 does not back political parties, we back policies and we criticise policies. We have criticisms of Labour policy – we have criticisms of all parties – but Labour’s policies on the NHS are much better than the Conservative's policies.”