Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has had his decision to reduce services at a major hospital declared unlawful and quashed by the High Court. There was loud clapping in court as a judge ruled that Hunt acted outside his powers when he announced to Parliament in January that casualty and maternity units at Lewisham Hospital in south-east London would be downgraded.
Mr Justice Silber said the Secretary of State had breached provisions of the National Health Services Act 2006. The ruling was a victory for the London Borough of Lewisham and the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, a community-based campaign group made up of and supported by patients, community groups, GPs, hospital doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
Elisabeth Laing QC, for the council, told the judge at a recent hearing at London's High Court that Lewisham Hospital was a "very good hospital" and the range of health services provided there was "greatly valued by local people and by the council. "If the changes were made, it would mean local people "will have to travel a long, long way further to get access to vital services", said Laing.
The proposed changes were part of a wider shake-up of services in the capital after the financial collapse of neighbouring South London Healthcare NHS Trust (SLHT), which went into administration after it started losing more than £1 million a week. Hunt told MPs the changes would improve patient care in south London, saving up to 100 lives a year, but gave an undertaking not to implement them pending today's legal challenge.
Dr Louise Irvine, a local GP and chair of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, said: "This is an incredible day. We are delighted for every single person who has supported the campaign and those who will now continue to benefit from this extraordinary hospital.
"The support from thousands of people in Lewisham is a very real demonstration of the Big Society. David Cameron himself said there would be no 'top-down' approach to closures and we appreciate the court's decision, which should serve as a reminder to this Government not to forget their promises and not to underestimate those who they seek to represent."
Rosa Curling, a lawyer with solicitors' firm Leigh Day who is acting for the campaigners, said: "This is a tremendous victory for all the people of Lewisham and for the thousands who have campaigned for this well-run, successful hospital to remain open.
"This mobilisation of the public in support of Lewisham Hospital has been extraordinary. Motivated by injustice, those who have campaigned for its survival have successfully shown that the decision taken by Jeremy Hunt to downgrade and close many of the hospital's services was wrong and unlawful.
"Real questions must now be asked about the decisions being taken by this Government in relation to healthcare. Jeremy Hunt cut services at Lewisham Hospital because of financial difficulties faced by its neighbouring trust, South London Healthcare.
"These difficulties were caused by disastrous PFI contracts entered into by South London, which were costing £60 million a year to service.
"The court found Jeremy Hunt had acted outside his powers by trying to make Lewisham pay for the financial problems of its neighbour. The Secretary of State cannot respond to the financial difficulties caused by the Department of Health's damaging PFI policy by simply imposing cuts on NHS services from above.
"This judgment should serve as a warning to the Government that, if they try to do this, local communities will fight back to ensure their healthcare services remain in place."
The judge gave the Health Secretary permission to appeal against his decision. A Department of Health spokesman said: "This judgment applies to one aspect of a package of changes which we believe are in the best long-term interests of patients and the public across south east London.
"As it stands, the South London Healthcare NHS Trust has been running at a loss of about £1 million a week - money that has to be diverted from frontline patient care. So of course we are disappointed by this decision. We need to consider the judgment carefully, and have obtained permission to appeal.
"We expect to continue other elements of that package of changes, including the dissolution of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust, planned for October 1 - although there are a number of steps to go before that can take place."