Secretary of State Julian Smith has told a DUP MP he is willing to meet with the parent of a patient at Muckamore Abbey Hospital to discuss the need for a public inquiry into abuse allegations.
Muckamore, a specialist facility in Co Antrim for patients with severe learning difficulties and complex mental health conditions, is at the centre of a major criminal investigation into allegations patients were abused by staff.
Police have been reviewing thousands of hours of CCTV footage from inside the facility and the detective leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Jill Duffie, recently revealed that as many as 1,500 crimes have been identified in relation to a single six-bed ward over a six-month period in 2017.
On Wednesday, the Belfast Trust confirmed that a further eight staff have been suspended in connection with the investigation, which brings the total number of suspensions to 28.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson, who tipped off Department of Health officials about allegations of wrongdoing at Muckmore after being contacted by a parent in August 2017, has said Mr Smith, who succeeded Karen Bradley during the summer, has told him he is willing to meet with the parent to discuss the need for a public inquiry.
Mr Robinson, who has been pushing for a public inquiry for some time, told the News Letter: “I raised this (the need for an inquiry) with the secretary of state yesterday.
“I met with him in London and he has committed to me that he is going to meet with my constituent and his representative in the next number of weeks.”
Mr Robinson also added his voice to those who have expressed concern about staffing levels at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in light of the latest batch of suspensions.
Glynn Browne, whose son is a patient at Muckamore, is among those concerned about staffing levels.
He said: “The trust, two years down the road, are still scrimping around trying to recruit staff. Knowing that a number of suspensions were likely, they should have been doing this months ago.”
A spokesperson for the trust, however, stressed that staffing levels at Muckamore Abbey “remain secure”.
“We wish to reiterate our sincere apologies to those patients and their families affected by staff behaviours which fell significantly below professional standards and were unacceptable at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, and for the resulting distressing impact on their lives,” the trust said in a statement
“We wish to assure families that care in Muckamore is safe, and that staffing levels remain secure. Staffing is currently augmented by bank and agency staff. In addition, the trust is engaged in active recruitment.”
However, Mr Browne claimed there are problems with agency staff.
“Patients at Muckamore require stability and continuity as part of their care,” he explained. “The agency staff, even with all the right training, can’t provide that. It’s not good enough.”
Mr Robinson added: “Given everything that has gone on with Muckamore, there can be no greater priority for the management and the trust.
“Staffing levels are a concern, and if we go back to the 16th of August, last month, this was highlighted by the RQIA.”