'Health and social care is owned by all of us' - Watchdog chairman on Norfolk's health service as he prepares to step down
PUBLISHED: 17:32 30 June 2018 | UPDATED: 08:37 01 July 2018
"We need to turn the rhetoric into reality."
Those were the words of the chairman of Norfolk’s health and social care watchdog as he prepared to step down from his post after five years.
Former Norfolk coroner William Armstrong will leave Healthwatch Norfolk after the organisation’s annual general meeting later this month.
But he said the organisation was more important now than half a decade ago when he became its first chairman, as the health service takes on new directions and challenges.
Mr Armstrong, 72, said: “I think after five years, it’s time to step aside. But I think Healthwatch is very invaluable and very productive, and over time a lot has been achieved.”
He admitted there had been challenges in making people aware of what the organisation did at first.
“When I started out it was almost embarrassing,” he said.
And it was a blow when Norfolk County Council cut Healthwatch’s funding last year.
But he said: “We’ve got to cope with that because it’s quite difficult to argue when frontline services are being hit so badly.”
He also highlighted Healthwatch’s role in ensuring the public knew about planned changes to the health service under the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP).
Before a Healthwatch event in July last year the public had been given little opportunity to engage with the STP, which was announced in 2016 and aims to save £300m in Norfolk and Waveney by 2021.
Mr Armstrong said: “I think [Healthwatch’s role with the STP] is very important and it continues to be important. Last year we became very concerned no one knew what was going on and the reality was people on the ground were not being told by the people in leadership.”
And he said while he agreed with the idea behind the STP, to bring organisations together to work more closely, he warned: “We must make sure it involves everybody. Part of what we must do is turn the rhetoric into reality.”
“We are providing people with a voice and we have to get people to believe the health and social care system is owned by all of us, we own the health and social care services and those who work in them are accountable to us.”
What issues does health and social care in Norfolk and Waveney face?
He said particular problems faced by health services in Norfolk stemmed from the county’s geography.
He said: “One issue is the rurality and there’s a lot of deprivation in rural areas. Lots of people who are not as connected as they should be or as well informed. And then there is trying to provide effective services in the community for older people.”
He said at the moment in many areas services were “just not addressing their problems, but making them worse”.
He also hit out at the postcode lottery caused by the county being covered by five different commissioning groups.
It means, for example, in some areas of Norfolk patients are entitled to more rounds of IVF than others, based on their postcode.
But Mr Armstrong, a former solicitor, said: “Your right to care should not depend on where you live. I see a lot of this as a matter of justice and in the context of a society where we care for each other, that was the concept of the NHS.”
He also said he still saw the same problems in mental health now as he did when he presided over inquests for 18 years as coroner.
But he recognised more people were now willing to talk about mental health and seek help, so pressure had increased.
He said: “Those things are still going on but we’ve kept a regular liaison with the mental health trust and hopefully things are beginning to turn around.”
• Healthwatch Norfolk’s AGM will be held on July 24, at the Forum, in Norwich, from 9.30am to 11am.