Campaigners fighting to save their doctors surgery have threatened Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt with legal action as time ticks towards its impending closure.
An Oxfordshire health committee put the future of Witney’s Deer Park Medical Centre, which is set to close on March 31, into the hands of Secretary of State Mr Hunt last month.
The Oxfordshire Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (HOSC) referred the matter up the chain on February 2 when its members deemed the closure to represent a ‘substantial change’.
But, over a month later, furious patients are yet to hear a response and are now considering taking the Health Secretary and his department to court.
Yvonne De Burgo, who saw a legal challenge to the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (OCCG) fail last month due to its timing, sent a letter of intent to Mr Hunt’s department on Wednesday last week and asked for a response by Friday.
The campaigners, who are seeking an injunction to prevent the surgery’s closure, were still awaiting a response as we went to press and are preparing to take the matter to the courts.
Witney town councillor and Deer Park’s Patient Participation Group (PPG) chairwoman Brenda Churchill said Mr Hunt has been threatened with legal action because he has taken “too long”.
She said: “Hurry up and let us know whether you’re going to keep it open and look at this seriously.”
The legal action was initiated at about the same time frustrated Witney MP Robert Courts wrote a letter to Mr Hunt pressing him to make a decision.
In his letter, seen by the Guardian, Mr Courts said: “I am worried about patients who have been left in limbo and are fearing the worst for their surgery.
“The decision to close Deer Park should not be taken lightly without full consultation.
“It is of huge significance to the residents of Witney and I support their viewpoint that this is a vital community asset that should be retained.
“Deer Park is a practice well-loved by the people of west Witney and the surrounding villages.
“This is a hub of the community and its closure would cause a devastating blow.”
He has also urged the case to be sent to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP), which would advise Mr Hunt on his decision.
Mr Courts told the Guardian he met with Mr Hunt on Monday to stress “how important Deer Park is to Witney”.
He said: “I was impressed with his knowledge of the matter from my earlier correspondence, and was crystal clear as to the urgency of the matter, with OCCG threatening closure at the end of the month.
“I am confident that he will refer this matter for independent review and we will hear the outcome shortly.”
Mr Courts added that he is “very disappointed” by how the OCCG has handled the matter.
Speaking of the court case, Linda Sturt, a patient at Deer Park for 17 years, said: “We’ve decided ‘hang on, you’ve let this go and you haven’t done anything about it so this is what we’re doing.’”
The Minster Lovell resident added: “He’s [Jeremy Hunt] just sat there and he’s not doing anything about it which is absolutely disgusting.
“People are really up in arms in Witney. We’re not giving up and we ‘aint going away right to the last day.”
Deer Park looked after around 4,400 patients before the centre’s closure was confirmed in October last year.
Around 3,900 patients remain at the Edington Square centre so far, despite letters sent out by the OCCG urging otherwise.
The PPG, which lobbied shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth in London on Tuesday on the issue, are encouraging patients to stay registered at the surgery until tomorrow to enable a clean transfer to other medical centres.
Last appointments at Deer Park will be on March 17.
It was confirmed in October that the surgery was to close after contract negotiations between Virgin Care, the care providers at the centre, and the OCCG proved unsuccessful.
The centre was due to only remain open until November 3, but following a meeting with the PPG, the OCCG extended this until the end of the month. PPG members are trying to raise legal funds and have so far raised £1,200. To donate, visit tinyurl.com/zt23j9v
The Department for Health had not responded to a request for comment before the Guardian went to press.