Russia children hospital to stay open

2013-01-23 21:19
A Russian woman holds a poster which reads: "Putin, hands off Hospital Number 31!" during a picket in St Petersburg. (Olga Maltseva, AFP)

A Russian woman holds a poster which reads: "Putin, hands off Hospital Number 31!" during a picket in St Petersburg. (Olga Maltseva, AFP)

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St Petersburg - Russian authorities on Wednesday promised not to close the main hospital treating children with cancer in the country's second city and hand it over for the exclusive use of senior judges, in an apparent U-turn following a public outcry.

"The hospital is operating and will operate as usual. Period." Andrei Kibitov, the spokesperson of St Petersburg's Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, wrote on his Twitter account.

"Everything will be as usual, there will not be any move."

The public had reacted angrily to a plan to hand over hospital No 31, which has St Petersburg's biggest children's cancer unit, and use it exclusively to treat senior judges who are set to relocate to the city.

The Kremlin confirmed on Wednesday that the plan would not go ahead.

"City hospital No 31 is not being considered as a possible venue for a future medical centre to serve the judges and staff of the Supreme and Higher Arbitration Court," a spokesperson for the presidential administration, Viktor Khrekov, told Russian news agencies.

In a suggestion that public opinion played a role, Khrekov acknowledged that the presidential administration had received a host of inquiries over the hospital's fate from national and regional lawmakers and city residents.

More than 150 000 people signed an online petition and Russian stars including actress Chulpan Khamatova and rock singer Andrei Makarevich appealed to President Vladimir Putin in an open letter over the decision.

There are at least three children's cancer wards in St Petersburg but the one at hospital No 31 is the biggest, a spokesperson for the hospital told AFP.

The head of the hospital's children's department, Margarita Belogurova, had warned that a move would "destroy unique ways of caring for the children".

Protesters have arranged to hold a rally in the city centre on Wednesday evening, with permission for up to 10 000 people.

Closure ‘morally unacceptable’

The Russian Orthodox Church also hit out at the proposed closure in an unusual statement, warning judges it would be "morally unacceptable" to cause suffering to children with cancer.

The influential speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, who was St Petersburg's long-term governor, slammed the proposal late on Tuesday, saying that "I consider it unacceptable to take this hospital out of the city's health system”.

"I well understand the feelings of people who are worried about the fate of this hospital. You mustn't solve one problem by creating another," she told journalists, quoted by Interfax.

The city authorities initially appeared taken aback by the public outrage at the proposal, trying to calm the protest mood by announcing a tentative plan to open a specialist children's cancer hospital in St Petersburg.

The proposal to close Hospital No 31 came up as part of ambitious plans to transfer Russia's Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Court from Moscow to the Tsarist-era capital, a move involving thousands of staff.

In a Soviet throwback, government ministries and state agencies still commonly have state hospitals assigned to treat their staff - without granting free access to the general public. Their facilities are seen as better-than-average.

Hospital No 31 is a modern building dating back to the 1970s and has highly specialised modern cancer treatment equipment bought with funds including million-dollar charity donations.

In the Soviet era, it served party officials.

Read more on:    vladimir putin  |  russia
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