Fury over NHS decision to move children's cancer services further away from Surrey

St George's Hospital, Tooting, Wandsworth
-Credit: (Image: Charlotte Lillywhite)

The NHS is encountering increasing resistance from local councils regarding its decision to relocate specialist children's cancer services from South London to Central London, further away from Surrey families who need it.

Richmond Council has voted to request Health Secretary Victoria Atkins to step in and review the decision by NHS England to shift the children's cancer centre, currently based at St George's Hospital, Tooting, and The Royal Marsden, Sutton, to Evelina London Children's Hospital, Lambeth.

The centre offers specialist children's cancer services to those aged 15 and under residing in South London, Kent, most of Surrey, Brighton and Hove, Medway and East Sussex.

This decision was made during a special meeting held on May 28. This comes after the NHS last year consulted on two potential locations for the future centre - either moving it entirely to St George's or to Evelina.

The NHS stated that the relocation of the centre is necessary as a new national service specification in 2021 outlined that very specialist children's cancer treatment services must be located on the same site as a paediatric intensive care unit and other specialist children's services. The Royal Marsden does not have a paediatric intensive care unit, which means a small number of children with cancer requiring intensive care are safely transferred by ambulance to St George's each year.

The NHS announced its decision to move the centre to Evelina on March 14. Services are not expected to be relocated until 2026 at the earliest.

Members of Richmond Council's health committee said they disagreed with the NHS' decision at a special meeting held on May 28. They raised concerns about the impact on families, including travel-related difficulties to reach Evelina in central London.

Lib Dem councillor Jim Millard emphasised the fears surrounding immunosuppressed children travelling on public transport. Describing it as 'terrifying,' he underlined the importance of being able to transport the children by car.

He further added that the council is 'very concerned' about residents undergoing stress while reaching Evelina, especially those who might be hesitant to use public transport. Councillor Millard highlighted this could unfairly affect those who are less privileged and potentially expose children to unnecessary risks.

Moreover, Councillor Millard praised the specialism built over 25 years at St George's and The Royal Marsden. He stated: "You can't just detach this whole process, plop it somewhere else and expect the same level of expertise to just grow - it takes decades, and we'd be throwing away a harmonious system of experts who work very well together and very effectively and the value of that is incredibly important."

Lib Dem councillor Stephen O'Shea contended that the NHS' assessment of both options had not 'fully recognised the fact that the great majority of patient carers and parents said that they wanted to be going by car'. He stated that while both hospitals are 'high-quality institutes', Evelina lacks the 'paediatric oncology expertise that Royal Marsden and St George's currently have'.

Councillor O'Shea also expressed worries that the NHS had not provided solid evidence for the 'assumption' that staff currently based in Sutton and Tooting would be content to relocate to Central London. He mentioned that the 'only feedback' the council had received from parents and formal groups about the options was 'purely negative', and questioned whether their voices had been genuinely heard during the evaluation process.

The council voiced its concerns about the NHS' decision in a joint letter dated April 26 to Dr Chris Streather, London medical director at NHS England, which was co-signed by the leaders of Wandsworth, Kingston, Croydon, Merton, Sutton and Surrey councils. A report by council officers indicated that Dr Streather's response on May 9 did not sufficiently address the issues raised in the letter, leading to a special committee meeting on May 28 to decide whether to request Ms Atkins to review the NHS' decision.

The report urged the committee to request Ms Atkins to review the NHS' decision, arguing that relocating the centre to Evelina is 'not in the best interests of the health service in the region'. The committee concurred with the recommendation at the conclusion of their meeting, although they may hold off on submitting the referral form until after the general election on July 4.

A St George's spokesperson described the decision as 'disappointing' at the time it was made, and said it would 'continue to provide outstanding care to children with cancer and work with NHS England, our partners and communities as this process continues'.

An NHS London representative stated: "Evelina London has been chosen as the future location for the children's cancer centre following a rigorous process, including involving clinical advisers, parents, charities, nurses and research staff. The future centre will stand ready to give cutting-edge treatments that require intensive care on site, like other major centres worldwide."

"Service reconfiguration is rarely easy and we recognise that during consultation, parents and families raised a number of concerns about the change in location, including about travelling further into London, and what that will mean for them. Our focus now is on detailed implementation planning which takes all of these concerns into account to support families and staff."

An Evelina spokesperson stated: "We are fully committed to working with patients, their families, staff from the current service, and other partners to design the new service with children, young people and staff at its heart, to ensure continuity of care during the transition period and to agree a plan for the transfer of the service."

St George's has been contacted for further comment.