Accident and emergency services at Stafford Hospital must remain closed at night until more specialist staff can be recruited, Ministers have warned.
They backed Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in its controversial decision to close the A&E department from 10pm to 8am, from December 1.
More than 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for the A&E unit to be protected, but the health trust has been forced to take drastic action because of a difficulties recruiting specialist staff.
It blames a national shortage of specialists trained in emergency medicine – and the trust’s poor reputation, after it emerged catastrophic failings may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of people at Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2008.
Speaking in the Commons, Health Minister Anne Milton said the closure was “on the advice of clinicians with the aim of ensuring patient safety”.
She told MPs: “What must be uppermost in everybody’s mind is that patients’ safety is always preserved, and the Department of Health will obviously work with the NHS to ensure that nationally we have schemes to ensure that patients’ safety is maintained.
‘‘For that reason, it would be unwise to return to 24-hour opening at Stafford A&E department before it is safe to do so.”
Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, local NHS trusts and new “clinical commissioning groups” involving GPs and health professionals were working together to try to solve the problem, she said.
They were “looking at a range of options to achieve a clinically safe and financially sustainable service, and will present their report on the way forward to the NHS Midlands and East strategic health authority cluster at the end of January,” said Ms Milton.
The Health Minister said the Government was also looking for ways to encourage more GPs and consultants to specialise in emergency care, as a way of reducing staff shortages.
And she said the hospital had the money it needed to employ the staff it needed, if it could find them.
She was responding to a Commons debate led by Stafford MP Jeremy Lefroy, who warned it “essential” to restore 24-hour A&E care, but said he accepted the closure was necessary.
Mr Lefroy said: “The decision was not taken lightly, but was made in the interests of patient safety. The temporary night-time closure is giving the hospital time to recruit the necessary staff and to improve training.”
But he warned: “With Stafford being shut at night, most patients have to travel considerably further for emergency care. The University hospital of North Staffordshire in Stoke is 19 miles away, New Cross in Wolverhampton is 18 miles away, Manor hospital in Walsall is 19 miles away and the hospital in Burton is 27 miles away.
“The absence of Stafford, even for 10 hours at night, leaves a large hole in accident and emergency provision for the region. It is essential the hospital has a full time A&E service.”
Praising the hospital, he said: “Stafford hospital provides a first-class service to many people in our area. The management, the staff, my Parliamentary colleagues and I are not complacent; we recognise that there is more to be done. None of us will be satisfied until our hospital is known nationally, as I believe it will be, for its high-quality treatment and care and it has the confidence of all those whom it serves.”
A spokeswoman for Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust said the trust believed five permanent senior emergency medicine clinicians were required.
The hospital has three, with a fourth starting at the end of January, and further applicants are being interviewed in mid January.
Seven middle grade doctors, with at least five in permanent posts and the remainder on fixed term contracts, were needed.
The trust has four middle grade emergency medicine doctors. One post has been offered to an applicant, with a starting date to be confirmed, and 14 further applicants will be shortlisted in January, the spokeswoman said.
Manjit Obhrai, the trust’s medical director said: ‘‘We are reviewing progress against each of the criteria for reopening. Our focus is on achieving these targets as soon as we can, so that we can reopen 24/7”.