At a packed meeting in Bishop’s Castle on Thursday afternoon, Shropshire Community Health NHS Trust’s board of directors concluded it was not convinced enough had been done to try and fill vacancies at the town’s hospital.
Members voted unanimously to have one final attempt at filling vacant nursing and ancillary roles – but warned if they were not successful they would serve notice to the county’s NHS commissioners to permanently end their contract to run the inpatient service.
Campaigners – who had been encouraged to wear yellow in a show of support – filled the SpArC theatre to hear the fate of the 16-bed unit, which closed temporarily in October 2021 when the trust said it could no longer guarantee patients’ safety.
Tina Long, acting chairman of the board, told observers that members were “fully aware of the strength of feeling around the decision”.
The trust’s chief executive Patricia Davies stressed that the board’s job was to decide whether the trust could offer an inpatient service at the site, and not whether the beds should close for good – which would be a decision for commissioners at NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin if the trust gave up the contract.
Clair Hobbs, director of nursing and workforce, said the staffing situation had not changed since the beds were closed.
She said: “The safety and quality issues that we had initially are exactly the same now.
“Whole-time equivalent vacancies have remained pretty much the same since the board decided to close the beds.”
She said the decision in 2021 came because patient safety and staff morale was being impacted by a high reliance on agency workers, who often failed to turn up.
Despite recruitment campaigns the trust had failed to generate enough interest to fill the substantial number of vacant posts, Ms Hobbs said.
As a result, the trust announced earlier this year that it had no reasonable prospect of reopening the ward and was considering giving up on the service.
Shelley Ramtuhul, director of governance, said there had been 1,418 responses during the consultation period as well as a petition bearing 2,630 signatures.
She said: “It’s really clear there is an impact on patients having to travel further, particularly due to the lack of infrastructure and wider services in the area.”
Beds remain open across the trust’s three other inpatient units – Ludlow, Bridgnorth and Whitchurch – which have seen an increase in the number of patient stays since the closure of Bishop’s Castle.
As a result, director of finance Sarah Lloyd told the board the total “inpatient activity” at the trust had remained above the level commissioned.
She also said there had been no overall cost saving, and that finances were therefore not a factor in the decision on Bishop’s Castle.
Ultimately, members said they were not satisfied that recruitment efforts had been “reasonable and sufficient”.
Ms Hobbs said: “I would say we have got insufficient evidence to be assured as a board that we have done everything we should have done.”
As a result, members were in unanimous agreement that another push at recruiting new staff was necessary.
Non-executive director Harmesh Darbhanga said: “We have had an engagement process. We need to listen to the voices that have been presented to us. We need to carry out further recruitment.”