Early closure of Tunbridge Wells stroke ward raises fears over fate of acute service in Margate

QEQM Hospital Photo Chris Constantine

The announced early closure of the stroke ward at Tunbridge Wells Hospital due to a lack of qualified staff has raised fears that Margate’s QEQM unit could suffer the same fate.

The ward was due to be closed, along with the one at QEQM and at Medway Hospital, when new specialist units are implemented in 2020 and 2021 at Maidstone, Ashford and Darent Valley.

But ward 22 at Tunbridge Wells is now earmarked to shut in September this year, with patients being diverted to Maidstone, because of staff shortages and problems recruiting.

‘Increasing challenge’

In a report to health overview scrutiny members at Kent County Council Sean Briggs, Chief Operating Officer, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, says: “There is an increasing challenge managing the stroke service on Ward 22 at Tunbridge Wells Hospital (TWH) where thrombolysis nurses and registered ward staff numbers are unsatisfactory and pose a high level of risk to staff and patients, despite robust and frequent recruitment activity

“The viability of Ward 22 until the opening of the new Hyper Acute and Acute Stroke Unit (HASU) and Acute Stroke Unit (ASU)on the Maidstone Hospital site planned for March 2020, as part of the Kent and Medway Stroke Network Development, is becoming increasingly unlikely due to the high level of vacancies and difficulty in recruiting.”

The report says the situation has been exacerbated by the plans for  three hyper-acute stroke  units (HASUs) across Kent & Medway which was agreed in February.

Mr Briggs says: “As a result of the future development of the HASU/ASU there has been uncertainty for staff regarding their future place of work and many do not want to move to the Maidstone Hospital site. This has added to our recruitment challenges.”

Vacancies at Tunbridge Wells have risen to a huge 53% resulting in the thrombolysis service only being covered 9am-5pm Monday to Friday and some weekends from next month.

Fate for service at QEQM?

The issue of staff leaving rather than moving their place of work and of recruitment difficulties could also pose a problem at QEQM in Margate.

In March The Isle of Thanet News exclusively reported that acute stroke services at Margate’s QEQM Hospital could be forced to shut down before a replacement specialist unit in Ashford is fully opened in Spring 2021.

In a business case report for the stroke review it said that QEQM services may have to be shut down “earlier than  planned” during the change-over because of difficulty in recruiting and staff turnover.

Rachel Jones, Director of the Kent and Medway Stroke Review, said the desire is to keep QEQM open until the HASU is ready and work would continue to retain and recruit QEQM staff.

‘Failure to recruit’

The business case report added: “The Trust has suffered from a failure to recruit staff to key positions and high turnover rates for a number of years. The three new HASU/ASU (acute stroke) units operating as part of K&M stroke network will work together to maximise staffing across the network.

“The stroke services at QEQM may be forced to close earlier than planned if the current staffing levels cannot be sustained, because of the challenge to retain staff during the transition and to recruit stroke trained staff as there is a national shortage.”

The report revealed the number of stroke consultants across Kent and Medway are 70% below the recommended level and the minimum staffing levels for other clinical staff, such as stroke nurses, are not being met.

The Trust will offer new roles, training and a “benefit programme” to encourage people to stay.

SONIK spokesperson Carly Jeffrey

Campaign group Save Our NHS in Kent has already lodged a Judicial Review against the Kent & Medway NHS decision to close three services in order to implement three hyper-acute units for the region.

Spokesperson Carly Jeffrey said the lack of staff means legal blocks to the plan being implemented are now being circumvented.

She said: “There are three major obstacles in the way of the controversial plans to close half of Kent’s stroke units: there are two judicial reviews from Thanet campaigners that challenge the decision and Medway Council has also referred the stroke plans back to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock.

“Legally, the plans cannot go ahead as yet, until these processes run their course. As a result of these acts of resistance, it is possible that a new consultation could be called for, or the plans might need to be rethought entirely.

“This has been circumvented by the staffing situation in Tunbridge Wells being so bad that the units can be closed ahead of time due to patient safety. The plans themselves are the reason for the drop in staff. The madness of these expensive NHS reconfigurations is that simply by announcing the planned closure of a unit, you are putting it automatically at risk. As a result, staff begin to jump ship.

“The plans themselves create a problem which can only be solved by closures. Isn’t it time to stop mooting these disastrous schemes to reduce our essential services?

“We were told during the consultation that the stroke units would not close until the new services were up and running. Now one of the three earmarked for closure is to be shut with no ‘hyper acute’ unit in sight, and barely any warning. The only barrier to this happening at QEQM is if staff stay put.”

County councillor Karen Constantine has also raised concerns, writing to Kent and Medway Stroke Review bosses to question whether Thanet will face the same circumstances.

She said: “It appears that some of our staffing fears are being legitimatised. TWH staffing levels have dropped, as staff have ‘voted with their feet’ and found other jobs rather than face the prospect of being relocated to Maidstone.

“It’s a 36 minute drive from Tunbridge to Maidstone. It’s 102 minutes from QEQM to Ashford. I doubt staff at QEQM will want to transfer to Ashford. Will we face the same issues here in Thanet?

“This situation has a significant bearing on Thanet. “

Cllr Constantine has requested detailed information over where staff moved to and what offers were made to retain them.

‘Staff support’

Rachel Jones, Director of the Kent and Medway Stroke Review, previously told The Isle of Thanet News: “We know from staff feedback that specialist stroke staff support the development of hyper acute stroke units to improve the quality of care for patients. It is our intention and desire to continue the service at Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital in Margate until the east Kent hyper acute stroke unit (HASU) at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford is ready.

“We are working towards this and continue to focus on how we can make this happen, including working hard to recruit and retain specialist stroke staff at QEQM.”


  1. As a qualified nurse of 17 years QEQM wanted to start me on the salary of a newly qualified nurse.
    Also shifts are 10/12 hours stretches which is not possible for everyone

    • I wonder if this is why there are problem recruiting at some of the Kent hospitals – it’s as if they don’t really want the jobs t be filled.

  2. The NHS management make it known that they want to close the stroke unit then they say it’s because they can’t recruit the staff. The reason they can’t get the staff is because the management want to close the unit. Do they (management) really think we are too thick to see what they are doing.

  3. The numbers regarding difficulty recruiting quoted here mostly relate to Kent overall. At the start of this consultation, QEQM had its full complement of stroke nurses and doctors. We have to pray that staff don’t leave, and have faith in the legal blocks that are in the way of the closure of the stroke unit. The hospital trust should offer all of the specialist staff in that ward a pay incentive to stay on – SONIK have made that request today.

  4. We are entering into the realms of vicious circles. Do we travel to Canterbury, Ashford, Maidstone for treatment at our own traveling expense or do we rely on the patient transport service whereupon we are at their mercy of the time we leave to the time we return. A15 minute appointment can turn into 4 hours traveling and waiting time.

    We look and think a 10 second yes 10 second UVB treatment + traveling time and parking fee’s, do I really need all the hassle and costs involve. Do I really need all the journey discomfort and costs involved by going to Maidstone. Its not life threatening just embarrassing. Hang on its a rare disease that could help others if it is cured. So you think of the comment the local original specialist makes. Go out into the sunshine, get a sun tan. So you end up with skin cancer costing the health service more to cure. Yes the vicious circle begins again.

  5. Well by the look of what i’ve Just read I might just curl up and ‘Die’ the next time I have an awful Exacerbation of my COPD… as i’ve Got Nobody to take me to wherever if I’m really I’ll again God Help Us Alk With All These New Rules.

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