Ulster Hospital agrees ‘no food’ zone after equality case

Aoibhe and Meabh with father Gerald and mother Maire-Iosa at home in Downpatrick
Aoibhe and Meabh with father Gerald and mother Maire-Iosa at home in Downpatrick

The Ulster Hospital has agreed to install a secure food-and-drink free waiting area after a Downpatrick family launched a discrimination case against the health trust which runs it.

Maire-Iosa McVicker, mother to two girls (Aoibhe and Meabh O’Donnell, aged seven and three respectively) went to the Equality Commission after her daughters – who suffer adverse reactions to certain foods – encountered people eating and drinking in the waiting room of the Ulster Hospital’s allergy clinic.

According to the commission, the children’s rare condition (called food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome, or FPIES) means they have “very severe physical reactions” to certain “trigger foods” – meaning their interactions with other children must be curtailed.

The commission said that the waiting room used for the allergy clinic, which the family regularly attend, originally had signs forbidding eating and drinking.

When these were removed, the family encountered two instances where people were eating and drinking in the waiting room – one of which led to Aoibhe having an allergic reaction.

The case has now been settled.

It did not involve any admission of liability by the trust, or any monetary compensation.

A statement in Ms McVicker’s name from the commission said the refurbishment of the hospital’s paediatric unit, due next year, “will now include a separate waiting room where no eating and drinking will be allowed, which will be of huge benefit to my children and to any others with similar conditions”.

This will be accessible only by swipe passes.

It added: “Until that’s ready, we have an interim solution in place. I appreciate the efforts made by hospital management to come up with a solution to the problems we were encountering.”

Seamus McGoran, director of hospital services at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust said he was “delighted” they had found a solution.

It is understood the trust apologised to the family.

Asked if the case means every hospital must now provide the same thing, the commission said: “The Disability Discrimination Act requires hospitals, like every service provider, to anticipate as far as possible the needs of potential users of their services who have a disability, and to take what steps are reasonable to remove any barriers to the service.

“What is reasonable would include consideration of what services the hospital offers and the resources available to it.

“This case was brought in circumstances where specialist allergy services were being offered.”

The case was settled on May 25.