War of words over hospital 'closure plan' to be escalated following General Election, say NHS chiefs

A dispute between the NHS and a London council over claims that a major hospital is to close is escalating, with health chiefs set to take a formal complaint further, PRWeek can reveal.

The letter and accompanying poster sent to Hammersmith & Fulham residents by Stephen Cowan
The letter and accompanying poster sent to Hammersmith & Fulham residents by Stephen Cowan

Comms is at the heart of the conflict concerning the future of Charing Cross Hospital in London. It centres on proposed cuts which will result in the closure of the hospital in all but name, or are simply changes to existing services, according to both sides in the dispute.

Hammersmith & Fulham Council has been running a publicity campaign against plans to change the services offered, which the council claims would see most of the existing hospital demolished and its A&E department replaced with an urgent care clinic.

Earlier this year, Cllr Stephen Cowan, leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council, wrote to residents in the borough calling for their help in fighting the "closure plan".

The reverse of his letter, which was sent out with annual council tax bills earlier this year, serves as a Save Charing Cross Hospital poster.

In the letter, Cowan urged people to "put the poster in your window, and ask your friends and family to join the campaign".

The move prompted NHS leaders to write to the council leader and accuse him of issuing "incorrect and misleading" publicity materials likely to cause "significant, unnecessary distress to patients and staff".

The letter was sent from Dr Tracey Batten, chief executive, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, and Clare Parker, chief officer, CWHHE (representing Central London, West London, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hounslow and Ealing Clinical Commissioning Groups).

It stated: "It is difficult to understand why the council would choose to spend significant sums of public money fighting 'closure plans' that do not exist."

The letter added: "We are raising a formal complaint with you regarding this publicity material and its content which we believe has clearly breached the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, specifically around objectivity and even-handedness."

The code, which can be enforced by the secretary of state for communities if reported, states publicity should be lawful, objective and even-handed.

It demanded that the council "stop any further promotion" of the publicity materials and "publicly retract your misleading claims".

The two sides are in deadlock over the issue.

The council has yet to issue a formal response but, in his initial reaction to the complaint, Cowan dismissed it as "the latest in a long line of attempts to hide the truth about their closure plans – and frighten those people who oppose them".

He added: "The facts are perfectly clear to us – North West London NHS published plans in 2013 to axe services at Charing Cross. Their letter of complaint reiterates that it’s still their intention to implement these plans. H&F Council has opposed these plans, and is proud to work with dedicated local residents to fight them."

However, an NHS source told PRWeek: "This is a serious issue, it causes real concern among patients and staff... and does a disservice to everyone, which is why we're taking this course of action.

"... We don't wish to be sucked into a political argument, especially during an election period, but as soon as we are past the other side of the election should we not hear back we’ll take it to the next level."

NHS chiefs are currently considering whether this will mean taking their grievance to the secretary of state or the local government ombudsman.

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