Karen Shenton-Stone said she had spent a year asking questions about what she described as ‘retrograde’ steps being taken behind the scenes by the Health Department to alter the Assisted Reproduction Unit, which she helped to set up following her own experience of infertility.
But, in an exclusive interview with the JEP today, she has now decided to go public with her concerns after failing to get what she considers to be adequate answers.
‘The new administration at the Hospital seems to be trying to sweep under the carpet all of the good work that has been done on infertility in the Island in the last 30 years,’ she said.
‘And I very honestly think they were going to get rid of it [the fertility unit].’
The Constable’s concerns come as ARU is in the process of a major – and, according to sources, chaotic – reorganisation ahead of the impending retirement of consultant Neil MacLachlan – Jersey’s leading fertility expert.
It is understood that the department has spent recent months locked in tense negotiations over Mr MacLachlan’s contract and the provision of services at the unit – which helps people who are having difficulty getting pregnant, those suffering recurrent miscarriages or those requiring genetic and other advice about future conception and pregnancy. Last year 5.2% of the 880 births in Jersey were the result of treatment in the ARU.
Health, however, denied that there had been any delay in getting the contract sorted and said any time it had taken was due to Mr MacLachlan sourcing his indemnity insurance.
A spokesman for the department also moved to reassure Islanders that there should be ‘no concerns about the future of the service’.
‘ARU is going to be well-resourced and staff are looking to enhance the service going forward. In fact, they’re looking to provide even greater choice, for example, with the potential provision of more off-Island treatment centres.’
The Health Department has now announced that Mr MacLachlan will continue to work with private patients and some public ones until January 2021. It is understood he will work on IVF provision, which most Islanders pay for and is run in conjunction with the Lister Clinic in London, while other professionals will oversee the lower-level fertility treatments provided locally.
And, according to Health, two other existing consultants with infertility treatment experience will be ‘supporting both the transition and future plans for the service’. No further details have been provided about those plans and patients have not been told.
Last week the ARU was moved by the department to Overdale from its purpose-built home on Rozel Ward, which has been commandeered for Covid-related matters.
The unit was closed during lockdown and only reopened yesterday, despite most fertility clinics in the UK reopening in May. In this newspaper in May, Mr MacLachlan said that the ongoing closure of the unit was having a negative impact on some patients’ mental health.
Mrs Shenton Stone, whose 24-year-old son was born as a result of IVF treatment, campaigned and fundraised for a Jersey fertility service to be set up in the 1990s. Her work, alongside others, was eventually successful and led to the opening of the unit – dubbed the ‘Clinic of Hope’ – in 1994 with Mr MacLachlan at the helm.
She has now accused Health bosses of trying to undo the progress made in the years since then, claiming that there had been major difficulties going on behind the scenes of the service for more than a year. The reorganisation and relocation of the service from a purpose-built facility that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to set up, the extended closure of the unit after lockdown, a lack of support for patients during the Covid crisis, and a failure to keep patients updated of the situation are among her concerns.
‘I think the new administration [at the Hospital] don’t seem to have any understanding of infertility or want to understand,’ she said, adding that her concerns remained despite meetings with Health Minister Richard Renouf and his team and asking various questions in the States.
Mrs Shenton-Stone accused the department of taking ‘retrograde steps’ with ARU rather than making progress. And she praised Mr MacLachlan for the pioneering work he had done in Jersey over the years and said recent events were threatening to overshadow that work as he neared retirement.
‘His legacy is very, very positive and they [Health bosses] are unravelling his legacy,’ she said. ‘They really need to acknowledge what he’s achieved.’
According to Health, until his retirement Mr MacLachlan will work with Health to transition all patients to the new system.
Kate Southern, general manager of Women, Children and Family Care, added: ‘The Overdale facility was sourced in response to the Rozel Ward, the ARU’s usual site, being designated a Covid hot area for the pandemic preparedness. Identifying an offsite location offers the service resilience for the future.
‘We have developed a number of pathways for existing patients – both public and private – so they can continue to receive the care and resources they need. We are also developing plans to ensure Islanders receive the very best off-Island support when they need specialist centres in the UK, including the provision of alternative providers.’
Full interview with Constable Karen Shenton-Stone inside today’s JEP.