Health Minister Edwin Poots has told of his “profound disappointment” that accident and emergency units at two of Ulster’s hospitals have closed at weekends.
Accident and emergency departments at Downe Hospital, Downpatrick and Lagan Valley Hospital, Lisburn in the South Eastern Trust will now operate from Monday to Friday.
A spokesman from the Department of Health said the minister has “challenged the trust, the HSCB and the department on why this change has proved necessary”.
He said the minister has “expressed concern at this happening in the winter period” and has asked for several key actions including: that all feasible steps are taken to ensure that the consequences of these changes are managed in a way that minimises the risk of unmanageable pressures on the emergency departments at the Ulster, Royal and other affected hospitals, so that patient safety and the quality of the patient experience is not compromised; that fresh efforts are made to secure medical staffing for both sites; and requiring the HSCB and the trust to bring forward urgently a detailed plan for the future of the Downe and Lagan Valley Hospitals with an implementation plan, to secure confidence in the community in the long-term future of these hospitals.”
Last night a spokeswoman for the South Eastern Trust, responding to Minister Poots’ statement, said they “regret the reduction in emergency department hours in both the Downe and Lagan Valley hospitals and share the minister’s disappointment that we are not in a position to provide seven-day cover in both units”.
“The trust has been experiencing critical medical staffing issues for some weeks,” she said.
“The shortage of emergency department medical staff is not only a local issue but a national problem.
“The weekend service at both hospitals relies heavily on locum doctors, and, despite exhaustive efforts by the trust, agencies have been unable to provide sufficient skilled, experienced doctors to sustain the service.
“The trust is clear that there is no better alternative to these changes at this time and has taken this action because we are determined to retain as much access as possible to emergency care services for local people at their local hospital by compressing opening hours.”
The spokeswoman added that over the weekend “the trust has been having daily discussions with the other trusts and has been monitoring the situation”.
“The system is challenged by normal winter pressures at this time of year and up until the time of this statement the system appears to be managing as well as can be expected,” she added.
“The trust will be working with the Health and Social Care Board to explore alternatives to urgent care services, particularly at weekends.”
Earlier SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie called on Minister Poots to ensure patient safety at the Downe Hospital.
She said she has requested an urgent meeting with the minister to discuss his role in intervening and resolving this matter.
“The decision to close the Downe Hospital A&E over the weekend period is not a clinical decision but the result of a human resource disaster,” she said.”
And Paul Givan, DUP Assembly member for Lagan Valley, said the closures must be a short-term measure.
“In the long-term, it will only be the restoration of 24-hour access to the Lagan Valley Hospital that will be acceptable to meet the needs of local people,” he said.