A STORM of protests has quickly blown up from over the horizon following Health Minister Michael McGimpsey’s rubber stamping of the South Eastern HSC Trust’s ‘reform and modernisation proposals’ which went out to public consultation. DOWN NEWS has sought the views of a wide range of health campaigners including South Down MP Margaret Ritchie, MLA’s, councillors and community leaders and they have all given an emphatic response: “No to the proposals“.
Down District DUP Councillor Jim Wells MLA, Chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, has voiced his deep concerns about Health Minister Michael McGimpsey’s decision to approve the South Eastern HSC Trust’s reform and modernisation proposals. Speaking at a visit to the Downe Hospital, he said, “This is a dreadful decision for Down but not entirely unexpected. I would predict that within a few months we will be looking at a further downgrading of services in the Downe Hospital.
“The loss of the consultant-led A&E service at night will greatly reduce the capacity of services at the Downe. We now have a greatly reduced minor injuries service. I am very disappointed.
“Also, on psychiatric services I am again disappointed that the ward is being moved to Lisburn. Mental health services have been provided there for many years but that seems to count for nothing with the Trust. I can see the sense in rationalising services, but not removing them from Downpatrick which has seen a loss of its consultant-led maternity unit (along with the rates office and district divisional office)… and now this!”
Speaking as Chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, Mr Wells added, “We are seeing similar situations across Northern Ireland with hospital trusts. It looks as though we are heading for a five-model system with two hospitals in Belfast, and one in Altnagelvin, Daisy Hill and Fermanagh. I can understand that it is necessary for consultants to have enough patient’s in their specialties to maintain their performance standards, but this system should be led by patients’ health needs, not the needs consultants. Why not bring the consultants to the patients in these rural hospitals?
“I am absolutely certain that this matter will be on the agenda at the next Assembly Health Committee meeting this coming Thursday.”
Sitting on the health committee along with Jim Wells are UUP MLA John McAllister, and Downpatrick man Dr Kieran Deeny, a Fermanagh MP elected on a hospital/health ticket.
Down District Council Chairman, SDLP Councillor Eamonn O’Neill, said, “I am absolutely appalled at the decision of the Minister. The Council health committee has put its views very well to the South Eastern HSC Trust on behalf of all of the community and all of the political parties.
“We have been totally ignored. It is just a disgrace. The Trust’s effort to find doctors for the Downe Hospital had been absolutely pathetic and for them to use this as an argument to shut down services at our hospital is totally unacceptable.
“When we researched the matter through freedom of information, we discovered that the Trust had only once asked for a set of advertisements to look for doctors and we are absolutely appalled that all the evidence we have produced against this set of proposals has been so whimsically thrown overboard.
“The false premise that GPs can run an overnight A&E service is an absolute sham, particularly given that local GPs are against it and have said that it simply will not work.
“Additionally, the Minister’s decision to make changes to our mental health care by taking away services from the Downshire and instead creating a centre of excellence at Lagan Valley is nothing short of disgraceful. It is ironic that many of the senior Trust officials themselves completed their training at the Downshire.
“It is extremely irresponsible for the Health Minister to allow a hospital, which has provided such an important service to mental health patients in our community, to be withdrawn.
“A judicial review has been initiated from the community already and the Council reserves its position on this issue. The Council Chairman’s Health Taskforce will be looking closely at the recommendations and we have already completed preparatory work on this for a legal action if required. We are confident that we will find faults in the decision and overturn the entire proposal through time.
“The community will continue to fight to have the decision reversed to cut A&E services at the Downe Hospital. Earlier this week, South Down MP Margaret Ritchie beseeched the minister to embark on a more sensible form of consultation, but this was also ignored which is symptomatic of the Trust’s attitude throughout this entire process and their unwillingness to take on board the concerns and needs of our community.”
SDLP Down Health Spokesperson Councillor Colin McGrath has also reacted with anger at the Minister of Health’s decision to change the Downe’s A&E services at night time. He said, “This is a sad day for Down District. For generations people of our area have stood shoulder to shoulder against the wishes of many direct rule ministers. These ministers always backed down and listened to the wishes and needs of the people of Down.
“Then we had locally accountable ministers and Sinn Féin Minister Barbre De Brun closed our maternity unit and now UUP Minister Michael McGimpsey has reduced our A&E unit. So much for local democracy!
“We must rally as a community and let the Minister know the folly of his decision. It is not difficult to note that not one of the four A&E units within minutes of his own constituency were affected.
“I hope this decision is not implemented and that the people of Down get the range of medical services we are entitled to and need.”
UUP MLA and Deputy Party Leader John McCallister said, “I too am disappointed at the decision. I have had talks with the Trust and tried to find a better way forward. There is a major issue of confidence in the Downe hospital at the moment and the GP-led night service in the A&E is causing considerable staff and the community considerable alarm compared to when there was a consultant-led service in place.
“But I have a serious concern is about the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service. Can it cope with the changes proposed? Extra ambulances will certainly be needed.
“The Down Council Task Force must now take all the evidence it can get and talk to health professionals, GP’s etc and see where it all is. We need to put confidence back into our health system. The Task Force can play a vital role here in doing this once the issues are further clarified.
“I think it is also irrational to move the psychiatric care away from the Downshire Hospital as it has been a centre of excellence for many years. There is a long history of care there.
“But the bottom line is this: if the Trust’s proposals go ahead, will they work and have the confidence of everyone concerned? There needs to be a proper monitoring and evaluation system built into these changes. If the proposed Out Of Hours A&E GP service does not meet the standards expected, then we’ll have to go back to a consultant-led service.”
South Down Sinn Féin Assembly Member Willie Clarke has condemned the decision by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust’s to ratify the ‘reform and modernisation proposals’ that were approved by Health Minister Michael McGimpsey.
Describing the decision as a “serious blow to healthcare provision in the South Down area”, Councillor Clarke said that the removal of the consultant-led A&E night-time cover at the new Downe hospital would put the lives of local people at risk.
Councillor Clarke added, “This announcement by the Trust shows that the consultation process they embarked on was a farcical exercise. Moreover, the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, remained completely detached from the intense debate which took place locally around these cuts and in so doing both he and the Trust have shown contempt for the widespread concerns that local people expressed.
“The new Downe Hospital is being gutted of key services and in particular, the loss of the A&E unit and the acute psychiatry service will have widespread ramifications.
“Despite the almost united opposition to the Trust’s proposals, the views of local people and healthcare professionals have been totally disregarded.”
Sinn Féin South Down Assembly candidate in May’s elections, Naomi Bailie, was also scathing in her criticism of the Trust’s decision. She said, “The loss of these essential services is a devastating blow that will quite possibly cost lives. The Trust’s determination to implement Minister McGimpsey’s plans took place without any social or equality impact assessments being carried out and people living within this large mainly rural constituency will have to travel some distance on poor roads to receive care during an emergency.
“Sinn Féin will continue to oppose this disgraceful decision and Minister McGimpsey’s rationale for imposing these cuts is discredited and makes no sense whatsoever.”
Sinn Féin local health spokesman Down District Councillor Liam Johnston also said the people of Down District have been “badly treated,” He added, “Now we know why the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust would not meet with us this year when we requested a meeting from the Council Health Committee. They have just treated the public with contempt.
“The consultation process results have yet to be published. This will have to be transferred over to the hands of the NI Assembly to deal with. This is a very black day for our district.
“We have seen new hospital developments in Dundonald recently and only this week there was a midwife led unit opened up at Lagan Valley. What does the future for the Downe Hospital hold? A judicial review process has been launched from the community and that may take a couple of months.”
Cadogan Enright, Green Party Councillor and Assembly election candidate for South Down, said, “This decision was expected and we deplore it. The decision to remove consultant-led service sin the A&E at night is fundamentally wrong.
“There should be no reason why the Trust cannot advertise properly and find recruits as middle grade doctors. I just don’t believe they have made a serious effort to recruit. This service is now run at night by GP’s in an Out Of Hours model. This does nor come up to the same standards of service that people are receiving in other areas.
“Myself and the other two Green party Council candidates John Hardy (Newcastle) and Marcus McCormick (Ballynahinch) are members of the Down Community Health Committee and back in June 2010 we wanted to proceed with a challenge to the Trust then but the SDLP were not ready then to accept this proposition.
“We believe that the consultation was just a pro forma exercise… that is, the Trust already has their minds made up. There was no real consultation process at all.”
Down District Rowallene DUP Councillor Billy Walker said he was “disgusted” at the Minister’s decision and added, “As a elected representative I am very annoyed. We have a new hospital which cost millions and before it has settled down we are looking at cuts in services.
“The people of this district made it perfectly clear to the Trust at the public meeting in the Downshire Great Hall that they did not want a GP-led [email protected] service after 10pm at night.
“Quite frankly, the word ‘consultation‘ now has been devalued. This decision to go ahead with the Trust proposals looks to be a forgone conclusion. It was just a paper exercise wasting a lot of time and money. The Trust has not taken aboard the views of the people. The Trust should halt their implementation of the proposals until the judicial review has been heard.”
Health Campaigners Angered By Trust Proposals Green Light By Minister
Down Community Health Committee Chairman Eamonn Grady said, “The position taken by Minister McGimpsey has been clear from the beginning. He has supported the Trust proposals even back to the consultation meeting in the Great Hall that was attended by hundreds of people from this area.
“It is no surprise and the Down Community Health Committee is extremely disappointed. It is a retrograde step. There are now serious concerns about the long-term implications of health service provision. But the campaign will continue to strive for proper health care services in our area.
“The MLA’s have a special responsibility now to get this matter onto the floor of the Assembly and have it reversed. We believe that whichever health minister follows Mr McGimpsey that he or she seriously reconsiders and reverses this decision.
‘In any case the Down Community Health Committee will continue its campaign for the people of the area and persuade the future Minister to rescind Mr McGimpsey’s decision.”
Dick Shannon MBE, Chairman of the Ardglass and District Health Support Group, and a Down Community Health committee member, said, “I have been involved in supporting the campaign for proper health services in our area and this announcement is bad news for us all in Down District and in the Mournes area of the Trust.
“We had a meeting with the Trust Chief Executive Hugh McCaughey yesterday and are deeply disappointed at this decision. Mr McGimpsey is a weak Minister who has kow-towed to the centralists who want services focused in North Down. The people have been badly let down.
“There are many questions that still have to be answered but it looks as though it will be through judicial reviews that we will get any answers.
“Even after a so-called consultation exercise, why are we not getting the same access to medical treatment as people from Belfast and the Greater Belfast area?
“How are three hospitals in Belfast going to cope with upwards of 65,000 people from Down District alone when patients are already lying on trolleys in waiting areas?
“Why is the Health Minister treating us as second class citizens. How will the Belfast clinicians who are twisting the Minister’s arm live with their consciences when people in this area lose their services… and possibly even their lives.
“Hopefully answers to these questions will be forthcoming. These so-called ‘reform and modernisation proposals’ must be stopped ASAP.”
Given the level of anger over the Minister’s decision, it is likely that the more than one judicial review process is set in motion. The legal battle may be won or lost in the courts, but the moral and political battle will continue with in the community. Nothing has united the people of the Down District and Mourne area as much as the threat to health services. It is a very emotive subject, and will be more emotive before the summer is out.
The battle commences.