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WHEN Pontefract’s new “state-of-the-art” £60m hospital opened in January, health chiefs made one promise: that it would have a 24-hour, consultant-led accident and emergency department.

Now, just eight months after the purpose-built unit opened its doors and millions of pounds were pumped into shiny, new facilities, it seems that one pledge is set to be broken and our trust has been betrayed.

This week bosses at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Friarwood Road hospital, revealed that in less than a month it could make the baffling move to shut A&E between 10pm and 8am every night of the week because of a “staff shortage”.

And as it looks to shake-up its services over the next five years, it is considering a move to downgrade the department – currently run by top doctors – by turning it into a “minor illness and injury service” staffed by nurses.

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If the plans are approved, the unit would be able to care for patients with minor sprains, broken bones and burns – but the most seriously-ill residents from the Five Towns would have to travel more than ten miles, to Wakefield’s Pinderfields Hospital, for treatment.

No-one with life-threatening conditions, like heart attacks, strokes and major infections, will be admitted to Pontefract. The town’s hospital will be stripped down to a point where it will be no better than an NHS walk-in centre. The trust could not even confirm if the unit would be staffed by doctors.

At a press briefing this week, health chiefs boasted how through their “vision”, Wakefield’s Pinderfields Hospital will become a “major trauma centre” and Dewsbury a “good local general hospital” – but it seems Pontefract could be downgraded to a “unit for planned care, surgical procedures, short-stay day cases and rehabilitation facilities”. Tim Hendra, its medical director, said residents will get urgent care at the town’s hospital when they need it, but access to “excellent” care would be available at the district’s other hospitals.

But we believe the trust is treating the town’s hospital with contempt – and that is shown in plans to close A&E between the hours of 10pm and 8am, which could happen without any public consultation.

Ruth Unwin, trust director of development, said the was idea suggested by senior clinicians and, if approved at a board meeting next week, could be implemented as soon as November 1. The move has been prompted by being unable to appoint “middle grade rota” staff and fewer doctors choosing to specialise in A&E.

The director said: “Pinderfields and Dewsbury are very busy consistently over a 24-hour period. In Pontefract, 19 people visit the department between 10pm and 8am – of which one needs to be admitted.” She added it was “unlikely” it would be fully reinstated before the consultation period into the unit’s future was over, but emphasised it would remain consultant-led during the hours it was open.

But what happens if you arrive at A&E at 9.30pm – will you be sent home at 10pm? Will less people use the facility, giving hospital chiefs an excuse to close it altogether? And what about people who need hospital care after nights out in the town on busy Friday and Saturday nights? We believe this move is dangerous and will put patients in Pontefract and the Five Towns at risk.

It’s a well-known fact the trust has been struggling to balance its books after having to slash £60m from its budget this year and next because of government spending cuts. It says the new plans, which could take effect at the end of next year, were based on clinical evidence and community need rather than finance – but it’s hard to believe cash hasn’t been a consideration. Last year, the National Clinical Advisory Team recommended A&E was shut to save £3.8m.

As for the long-term plan, how ill would you have to be to be too ill to be treated at Pontefract’s A&E?

Mr Hendra said the trust would speak to GPs, ambulance staff and residents to say: “This is what the facility at Pontefract is there to do and this what it can’t do.” But is that really workable? And what impact would the changes have on an already-stretched Pinderfields?

This week the Express is launching a campaign to save our A&E. We want bosses at the trust to honour their pledge that the town will have a 24 hour, consultant-led emergency unit – and we need your support. The trust says the plans are at a “very early stage” and wants to hear what residents think. Get in touch with them and sign our petition. We must save A&E.