PARENTS and supporters of children with serious heart conditions have vowed carry on fighting the proposed transfer of vital services from Belfast to Great Britain.
Several MLAs, along with health professionals and trade unions, joined the families of those affected for a rally at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children on Saturday.
A public consultation on the future of children’s heart service ended in December 2012 and a final decision from Health Minister Edwin Poots is expected to be announced at the end of this month.
Campaigners are angry that health bodies in Northern Ireland appear to be backing the transfer of services - a move they claim will cause unnecessary hardship for local families when children face intensive spells of treatment in England.
A major review of services, the Kennedy Report, was produced last year which described the current arrangements as “unsustainable”.
Since the report’s publication, Dr Miriam McCarthy from the Public Health Agency said she fully recognised that travelling from Northern Ireland for treatment meant inconvenience for families, but claimed fewer people from across the UK would be affected if the care was centred on the mainland.
Speaking after Saturday’s demonstration, the secretary of the Children’s Heartbeat Trust charity said the campaigners would carry on fighting if the minister gives the proposal the green light.
Maria Kennedy from Bangor, who has a rare heart condition as do her three sons, have received excellent treatment in Belfast and believe they will become “second class citizens” if services are stripped from Northern Ireland.
“We will do whatever we can to make it stay here. You wouldn’t meet one cardiac family that wants to travel to England. There will always be families that have to go to England [for certain treatment] but it should be the exception rather than the rule,” she said.
The charity secretary described the weekend rally was “incredible” and a “great show of support from the public and MLAs”.
“It was very, very emotional and everybody was on a real high about it,” she said.
Mrs Kennedy added: “We really hope that the right decision is made, to keep and enhance Belfast. If that isn’t on the cards then there should be an all-island solution. It will be devastating if we lose Belfast. If it was found be unsustainable then make it sustainable.”
She added: “We are not going to go away.
Among the MLAs taking part in Saturday’s rally, which ended in Belfast city centre, was Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy.
The party’s health spokesman said: “I would like to congratulate all who took part in this rally. It sent a clear message that the health minister must make a decision which is in the best interest of the children who require this service.
“If devolution is to mean anything then our local health minister must make a decision that is in the best interest of people in Northern Ireland and not just follow a UK-wide decision.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said he feared other services could be affected if the children’s heart unit was transferred.
“If this element of surgery is lost other specialist surgery which is related to it may also be endangered and we may lose full services in Belfast for our children,” he said.
“We believe it’s vital that the full services remain in Belfast for the benefit of everyone.”
Commenting on the proposed changes, Conal McDevitt of the SDLP said: “It would put us at a severe disadvantage and it would be dangerous. I would appeal to the minister not to do that.”
A petition containing the names of more than 13,000 signatories, urging the retention of services in Northern Ireland, was presented to the Stormont health committee last September.