The secretary of state for health has called disruption to 'vital' hospital volunteers 'highly regrettable' following a parking dispute with a charity group and Northampton General Hospital.
The Friends of Northampton General Hospital (NGH) - a service who man three reception desks and assist outpatients - are winding up their 28-year-strong volunteer group on August 31 after the group had their free parking privileges withdrawn by the hospital in a recent review.
The charity estimates they would have to spend £15,000 a year to cover the costs of parking for their shifts. As part of the review, Northampton General Hospital announced it would reimburse its in-house Trust volunteers for up to £5 for parking - but this does not apply to the Friends.
In a letter to Northampton North, MP Michael Ellis, secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt said: "I am hugely disappointed to learn about the concern this has caused locally.
"Volunteers are hugely valuable and we would expect trusts to be doing all they can to support them, including ensuring that appropriate parking is available to them wherever possible without unreasonable costs."
The Trust has recently made changes to its parking policy following the build of a new assessment unit, which will result in the hospital losing 70 parking spaces outside the main entrance.
John Paterson, 69, volunteers for four hours per week with the Friends of Northampton General Hospital, which also provides a buggy service to take those with disabilities or who struggle with mobility clinics around the hospital.
He confirmed that there are at least eight people leaving, including six buggy drivers and two part-time paid administrators, as a result of this change.
"There is a number of us who are giving up due to the lack of respect shown to us by NGH. We are also having to give up our charity shop, which generated a £23,000 profit last year," he said.
"In total, we estimate we are losing volunteers with over 100 years of combined service with the Friends.
"We are resigned to this closure and we all wish our 'Friends' who are staying on in the new regime, every success."
In a staff briefing letter seen by the Northampton Chronicle & Echo - written by Sonia Swart, chief executive of NGH - it shows that a row over safeguarding checks could have contributed to the fall-out.
But Mr Paterson claims that the group has made various attempts to renew CRB and DBS accreditations and the in-house volunteers are not being subject to the same scrutiny.
He added: "This letter to all NGH staff is totally disrespectful of our efforts and contribution over the 28 years and seeks to tarnish our excellent reputation."
A spokeswoman for Northampton General Hospital said: “The contribution the Friends volunteers have made over the last 28 years has been highly valued by our staff, patients, and visitors.
“We’re disappointed that the management of the organisation decided to withdraw their services as we had tried very hard to work constructively with them to resolve all the issues which had given rise to concern.
“However, on a more positive note, we’re delighted that the overwhelming majority of the Friends’ volunteers have chosen to join our in-house volunteer service and will continue to support our patients and visitors.”