Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Ray CollinsRay Collins on the government's running down of NHS walk-in centres

I suspect I’m not untypical when it comes to illness. In the past if I’ve had something wrong health wise I tended to put off dealing with it. Not because I was frightened of medics. It was just that it did not seem serious enough to visit A&E, and a GP visit often meant taking a day off work and could take up to two weeks to get – by which time things may have changed.

Whilst it was not the case for me financially, for many taking a day off work is not something they could afford to do. That’s why one of the most popular initiatives by the last government was the development of local walk-in centres close to where people worked. In April 1999 the Department of Health authorised funding for a pilot scheme of 40 NHS walk-in centres in 30 towns and cities across England, the first of which opened in January 2000.

Like many who work in London, I did not live near my GP. The new walk-in centre in Victoria near the office where I worked made a huge difference to me when an eye infection got worse despite using all the creams from the local chemists. Work colleagues persuaded me to drop into the new centre across the road. The nurses gave me a quick check up and the result was an urgent referral for very high blood pressure that led to early diagnose of diabetes type 2.

For me the early diagnoses and the excellent response of the NHS have meant I have a chance of avoiding the worst consequences of diabetes. You can therefore imagine my concern and disappointment to the see Victoria centre close last December. Was this something happening across the country?

When I checked the NHS website, the current page stated that were around 92 centres in England, dealing with minor illnesses and injuries managed by PCTs. However, recent BBC analysis of weekly NHS hospital activity statistics shows there were 75 non-hospital providers of emergency care in June 2012, which could also include urgent care units. That is 26 fewer than in the same month last year, a reduction of 25%.

In July of this year, Earl Howe in answer to a written question by Baroness Masham simply said the Department of Health did not hold data centrally on how many walk-in centres have been closed.

In the month before at PMQs, Labour MP Gloria De Piero asked David Cameron why the "popular" walk-in centre in her Ashfield constituency and "similar walk-in centres are closing all over the country". His answer was "certainly not because the money in the NHS is being cut, because it is not being cut" but decisions need to be "taken locally" about how "money in the NHS is spent to deliver better health outcomes".

The answer we had around the same time from the then Health Minister Simon Burns was that: "More people than ever are being treated in these units, almost 20,000 more compared to last year. Some of these services have recently been taken over by hospital trusts, whilst others have been integrated into local urgent care services, so while the number of organisations might appear to have fallen, this has not affected access to urgent care services, in fact people using them has increased."

Gloria De Piero meanwhile, told the former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley that people in need of primary care services now "either have to first present themselves at A&E or make an appointment" and "no longer had the ability to walk-in directly". From my experience, such centres lead to better access resulting in early intervention which saves lives and money.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is a member of Labour’s health team in the Lords

Published 11th October 2012

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