Theresa May has been accused of trying to “airbrush” the NHS crisis out of the Copeland by-election after refusing four times to say if she opposed planned cuts to a local hospital.
The Prime Minister visited the Cumbrian constituency on Wednesday in a bid to help the Conservatives overturn a Labour majority of 2,500 to take the seat for the first time since the 1930s.
But May failed to give any assurance that she would intervene to stop plans to downgrade maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital.
With just over a week to go to the by-election, Labour also seized on local Tory campaign material to point to the absence of any reference to the controversial plans.
Campaigners claim that the proposed changes to the constituency’s hospital will mean pregnant mothers and other patients being forced to travel 40 miles to the nearest specialist care units in Carlisle
The PM staged a lightning trip to a local school, and tried to make nuclear power the big campaign issue, stating the Tories were more committed to a new power station in the area.
Yet she didn’t visit the hospital or its staff, leading Labour to claim the Tories are “running scared” of the NHS crisis.
The by-election, which was triggered after Labour MP Jamie Reed quit to take a job in the nearby Sellafield nuclear waste centre, will take place on February 23 at the same time as the Stoke-on-Trent Central poll.
Local Tory candidate Trudy Harrison has said she would oppose the downgrade of maternity services, but the PM refused to say if she agreed.
When asked by ITV if she opposed the change to services at West Cumberland, May ducked the question repeatedly.
Neither the fate of the hospital or wider A&E pressures feature in two key leaflets and questionnaires distributed by local Tories.
A new Ipsos-MORI/Economist poll found that public concern over the NHS has risen to its highest level since 2003, with almost half (49%) of Britons considering it to be one of the biggest issues facing the country.
The Tories have instead focused on nuclear power, Brexit, rural broadband, schools and flood defences as campaign themes. The NHS does not feature in any of their six ‘’pledges” to local people.
Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s National Elections and Campaigns coordinator, told HuffPost UK: “To make six pledges to a remote constituency on the verge of losing vital services from its hospitals, and not mention it, is incredulous.
“The Tories don’t have any answers and so have chosen to simply airbrush it out of the picture. They clearly don’t have any real understanding of what’s going on in Copeland.”
The Prime Minister told Reed last year that there was “a general consensus” among medical experts that services should be downgraded at West Cumberland Hospital.
Once the by-election was called, May appeared to backtrack, saying in Prime Minister’s Question time that “I recognise the concerns” about the loss of consultant-led maternity cover in the constituency.
An eight-year old girl who was born in the hospital has yet to receive a reply from the PM to a letter urging her to intervene and stop the cuts.
Gillian Troughton, Labour’s candidate in the by-election, added: “By ducking questions on maternity services multiple times, Theresa May has tacitly endorsed making women in labour dangerously travel over 40 miles to Carlisle to give birth.”
Labour itself has come under attack for a leaflet suggesting that “mothers will die, babies will die, babies will be brain damaged” if the maternity unit is downgraded.
With nuclear power the main employer in the area, the Tories have deliberately targeted Jeremy Corbyn’s changing views on the issue over the years.
After weeks of prevarication, the Labour leader recently pledged to back a new power station at Moorside, on which 20,000 jobs depend.
But the entire project has been thrown into doubt after Japanese firm Toshiba appeared on Tuesday to pull out of a consortium to build it.
Chris Jukes, GMB Senior Officer for Sellafield and Cumbria said he wanted May to use her visit to Copeland “to make concrete commitments that the government will take any necessary stake in Moorside to keep this vital piece of infrastructure on track and which will fill any future gaps in funding.”
When asked on Wednesday about the Toshiba threat to the plans, May refused to make any new guarantees, although she said Business Secretary Greg Clark was had spoken to the Japanese firm and got a pledge of its backing.
“It’s the Conservatives who are committed to the nuclear industry in the UK. Trudy Harrison, our candidate here, has made very clear to me the importance of Moorside,” she said.
May pointed out that Corbyn had refused five times in a TV interview to give unequivocal backing to Moorside.
Labour said May’s words failed to match its own pledge to get a Labour government to underwrite the multi-billion pound project.
A hustings for the by-election candidates is set to be held on Wednesday night, hosted by trade unions GMB and Unite.