A secret plan to close both Epsom and St Helier hospitals and replace them with an 800-bed "super hospital" in Sutton has been leaked by health consultants.
The proposals came to light less than three weeks after chief executive Daniel Elkeles assured this newspaper that accident and emergency (A&E), maternity and children’s services would be safe on both sites for the next five years.
He said then: "All the talk about Epsom and St Helier needing to lose their services has gone away.
"People don’t have to worry in the next few years about putting out the placards."
According to a BBC News report last night, management consultants were overheard on a conference call about the plans on a commuter train to London Waterloo after meeting Mr Elkeles.
The BBC said the hospital trust had commissioned consultants to "build a new super hospital for the area" on the former Sutton Hospital site - a partially used mental health facility, some of which has been sold to Sutton Council for a school. This is understood to be the "preferred option".
Two other options were mentioned: building a new hospital at St Helier and rebuilding Epsom Hospital.
According to the BBC, one of the consultants on the train was heard to say they were "making progress" with Mr Elkeles on the plans.
The BBC said last night: "One of them [the consultants] said ‘I had a brief discussion with Daniel afterwards.
"He said he felt pretty good about the meeting.
"We are making good progress.
"Actually getting him to agree on the number of beds to start with is a very big accomplishment'."
The consultants were also overheard discussing details about plans for a new A&E, what it would be called and what services it should provide.
In a statement to the BBC last night, Mr Elkeles said: "This is a long-term plan and any of the options being looked at here are many years away from being implemented and will need a lot more discussion, agreement and consultation before happening."
Mr Clegg praised Mr Brake and said his "campaigning for St Helier’s Hospital, keeping it open, keeping the maternity open, keeping A&E going is second-to-none".
Dave Ash, the National Health Action Party parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, said plans to build a super-hospital had left him "extremely worried".
He said: "My fear is we would in effect be losing two, well-used, well-performing hospitals, and have them replaced with something which is less than half of what we have now.
"When Daniel Elkeles told local campaigners that Epsom and St Helier Hospital was safe for the next five years, did he forget to tell us that it would only be safe for that period because in five years time, both hospitals would be replaced by one "centre"?
"This news is the latest in a long line of threats to our local health services on the Coalition’s watch.
"If Daniel Elkeles and the clinical commissioning groups [the GP-led groups which control local NHS spending] are actually colluding to push through the closure of two hospitals, Paul Burstow and every MP who voted for the Health and Social Care Act are responsible for this latest wave of uncertainty for residents in Sutton and Merton, and need to be held to account."
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper last month, Mr Elkeles said the trust had been given the green light to move towards semi-independent foundation trust status and that they would be breaking even by the end of the month "by hook or by crook".
Andrew Judge, Wimbledon councillor and parliamentary candidate, said this morning: "The Epsom and St Helier trust should come clean about what exactly they have asked their consultants to do and why this is in conflict with their recent public statement?"
Since this article was published, Epsom and St Helier hospital trust has issued the following statement:
"Last night, our hospitals were featured on the BBC local news.
"We would like to assure our patients, visitors and other local people that our plans and objectives for the next five years remain completely unchanged.
"Our five-year strategy to keep all our sites where they are remains the same; our plan to keep our A&E and maternity services open at our two biggest sites remain the same.
"In short, all of the commitments we made publically two-and-a-half weeks ago remain the same.
"But we have to think beyond 2020, and as everyone who has visited our hospitals will know, we need to develop a plan to keep our hospital buildings fit for the future.
"Some of our buildings were constructed in the 1930s, and their age is being to show. We remain determined to sort this out over the longer term - that is, over the next 10 to 20 years.
"Reports suggesting that any change is just around the corner are way off the mark.
"As local people will be aware, we need to do an awful lot of work before we develop any option for change, and any possible changes will be subject to the approval and consultation of the public we serve and our local healthcare partners.
"That said, it is deeply disappointing that an overheard conversation made the news in this way, and meant that very early plans to discuss different possibilities for the future of our hospital buildings were published almost as fact.
"We would like to apologise to anyone who was made to feel nervous by the media reports.
"What is important, and accurate, is that we will be continuing the long process of evaluating options.
"As and when we think we have any clear answers or options, we will ensure our patients, staff and the public hear about it properly and can have their say.
"Any changes, however far down the line, will need a lot of discussion and consultation.
"In the meantime, our staff and volunteers will carry on doing what they do best – delivering great care to every patient, every day."
Mr Elkeles said: "The trust board has always been very open that it is committed to retaining both hospitals for at least the next five years – and that remains the case.
"At the same time it is right that longer term planning should start now to tackle the serious problems facing local services and local NHS buildings, many of which were built in the 1930s and mean patients are being treated in inadequate conditions.
"However this is a long-term plan and any of the options being looked at here are many years away from being implemented and will need a lot more discussion, agreement and consultation before they happen.”
A spokesman for NHS Sutton Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said: "We recognise that Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS trust's estate needs significant improvement - health services are being delivered from buildings that in some places are from the 1930s - and we are supportive of the trust undertaking a full estates review, which has been funded by Surrey Downs CCG, Sutton CCG and Epsom and St Helier University Hospital trust.
"However, the trust has not got to the point where they have discussed with us, as their local commissioners, the results of their review or any proposals arising from it.
"Of course, any proposed future developments would need to be considered in line with the south west London CCGs' strategy for health services in South West London."
NHS hits the headlines across south west London and north Surrey
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