By Chris Yandell
Southern Daily Echo – 30 September 2005
The scale of its success has taken even the organisers by surprise. A Daily Echo-backed petition opposing the proposed closure of hospital beds in Hampshire has attracted an incredible 40,980 signatures – way beyond expectations.
Plans to shut scores of in-patient beds across the New Forest have sparked one of the biggest controversies the area has ever seen. The axe has already fallen at Lyndhurst where all 20 beds at the Fenwick Hospital were closed at the beginning of the year. The decision sent shockwaves through the local community – but worse was to follow.
Three months after patients were moved out the Daily Echo revealed that health bosses were thinking of closing all the community hospital beds in the district. Suddenly the cottage hospitals at Hythe, Fordingbridge, Milford-on-Sea and Romsey were facing the same threat as the Fenwick.
Campaigners claimed that the loss of beds could result in the complete closure of the facilities some of which were built as war memorials.
One of the first people to criticise the scheme was New Forest East MP Dr Julian Lewis who said:
"The future of in-patient care in our community hospitals is under attack.
"I intend to fight this tooth and nail."
Dr Lewis was as good as his word. He launched the Community Hospitals (SOCH) campaign and also organised a march and rally that was attended by at least 2,000 protesters. SOCH also started a huge petition that has now been signed by 40,980 people – twice the number that protesters had forecast.
Yesterday New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne and Romsey MP Sandra Gidley presented the petition to leaders of New Forest Primary Care Trust.
The ceremony was attended by dozens of placard-waving campaigners who gathered outside the trust's offices in Sterne Road Calmore. When they were told how many people had signed the petition they cheered and held their placards aloft in triumph. Mr Swayne said:
"Some 2,000 attended the rally and now more than 40,000 people have signed a petition saying they don't want to touch what the trust is proposing."