‘This will not be forgotten’: The struggle to save Ward 15

by Sandra Webster

These are my thoughts and opinions on the history of the campaign to save Ward 15 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. History belongs to the victory, as we are reminded. But, there are no victors in this, just families in Renfrewshire and beyond let down by cuts and centralisation again, and a cut to a much-needed essential service.

So, travel back in time to eight years ago. A meeting was called for families who use Ward 15. Some of the children there and those in most of the stories were children with chronic conditions, some very complex. We were told then that the ward would close by Christmas. I met another parent there and we organised a picture shoot. Both SNP and Labour councillors were there. There is a good deal of animosity between these two tribes sadly, but it was good to see local councillors, MSPs, and most of all parents.

We arranged a public meeting and the Kids Need Our Ward (KNOW) campaign was born. Until this point I had not been involved in politics, but this was personal – not only for my own family but families across Renfrewshire. We went to public events, started a petition and engaged with the Health Board. This was a true community campaign (politics with a small ‘p’), but politicians and activists of all colours engaged.

The Scottish Parliament is shaped like a semi-circle, as a visual reminder, to stop the binary tribalism of Westminster politics. The local SNP supported us, saying to close the ward would be disgraceful. The Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, and the local trade unions were all involved.

[x_pullquote type=”right”]I asked Nicola Sturgeon if there were plans to close the ward. “None,” she said. Sadly, I believed her.[/x_pullquote]I can remember one of the highlights of the campaign several years ago being an options appraisal. Along with staff, local groups including the KNOW campaign were invited. We were promised the Earth: a ward for the children of Renfrewshire; training for children with autism; transport. I mention these things now as, at a recent appraisal, one of the moguls of the Health Board said: “My staff would not say this.” I did not push it, but the member of staff in question was sitting next to her! I wish I had now. A parent who was there described the meeting as a timeshare presentation. Us parents were treated as errant children urged to stand next to the whiteboard. It was grim stuff.

I remember a reporter phoning to say they were not going to close the ward. We felt relieved. We had all argued the difficulties many would face, especially those with chronic illnesses. I went away and campaigned for independence all over Scotland. If a small group could make the Health Board stand down, surely there was hope for a different Scotland. I remember when the cabinet came to Renfrew Town Hall and I asked Nicola Sturgeon if there were plans to close the ward. “None,” she said. Sadly, I believed her.

A couple of years ago, with the completion of the new QE hospital, the Health Board were back with a vengeance. It was evident they meant to close the ward. Can I just say how much of a lifeline having a local service is? My son attends the new hospital at least once a month, but Renfrewshire needs a local service for children with chronic conditions and acute ones. Sadly at this time, the entente cordiale among the parties broke down and it became drawn along party political lines. It became a photo opportunity, when it was and still is about children’s lives.

The last throw of the dice was when Health Secretary Shona Robison spoke to us. Some people say it is not a cut but an upgrading of service, including some of those who spoke out against the ward’s closure. It is more than “just a few miles away” for us: it means £40 on a taxi round trip and major difficulties in visiting. Not everyone has a car. It is a cut like at Stobhill, the Vale, St John’s… I could go on, but it sounds like a Proclaimers song.

I wish folk could see what has happened in the past eight years to carers and people with disabilities and they might have an understanding of how our lives are becoming more and more difficult. Carers have broad shoulders, but we are bearing the brunt of the closure to services. It was in the Scottish Government’s power to keep the ward open but they did not. Labour brought in PFI which has had a devastating impact on schools and hospitals, so their hands are not clean either.

I have cried all weekend. The NHS is precious. We can’t look down to England and think all is well up here, because it’s not. For those who think the closure is okay, this is my potted history of events and it mirrors the experience of many. I still dream of a different Scotland, but I need action – not words or justification – by those who represent me. This will not be forgotten.