Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Public outcry over plans to close Daisy Hill A&E

An announcement by the Southern Health and Social Care Trust outlining plans to temporarily close Daisy Hill Hospital’s Emergency Department at short notice, during periods where there is a lack of senior medical staff available, has caused public outcry across the district, with political representatives and unions vowing to fight to maintain the essential service.

At a public meeting on Thursday, Southern Health Trust bosses admitted the local Emergency Department was under severe threat due to ongoing recruitment issues and warned that staffing concerns made the possibility of continued 24 hour cover unlikely.

The news comes amid ongoing speculation about the future of the facility and has shocked the entire community, with fears growing that further services at the hospital could be affected.

In a statement released after Thursday’s meeting, the Trust said it remained committed to maintaining the Emergency Department and that all recruitment possibilities were being explored to try to maintain 24/7 cover at Daisy Hill but admitted that “the service currently remains vulnerable to the short notice withdrawal of senior medical cover, particularly during the summer months when there is a less secure supply of locum consultants.”

“Therefore, if there is any risk to patient safety due to lack of senior medical cover at night, the ED will temporarily suspend the service until suitable medical cover becomes available. This would be a last resort, and the Trust is making every effort to avoid any reduction in hours in the short term.”

Reacting to the worrying development, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said he had requested a meeting with the acting Chief Executive of the Southern Health & Social Care Trust on the matter.

“The Trust have employed enough senior staff in recent times to ensure that there is adequate cover in both Daisy Hill and Craigavon, it is their responsibility to deliver 24-hour cover in the Emergency Departments, and the loss of services is not the answer,” said Mr Murphy, stressing that the proposal “is already promoting real concerns that the Emergency Department could be further downgraded, increasing the chances that other services will be whittled away in turn. This must not be an option for consideration.”

Party colleague Mickey Ruane also revealed that he and his colleagues intend to bring an emergency motion before Council at tonight’s meeting (Monday April 3rd) confirming its opposition to the Southern Trust proposals to suspend emergency services.  Mr Ruane also confirmed that an urgent meeting with senior Trust officials is also demanded.

The Sinn Féin Council Group Leader called on the Council to suspend Standing Orders at tonight’s meeting in order to get the motion tabled – which needs 80% of Councillors present to agree – something he said would not be an issue.

“This motion is a very public portrayal of what is needed at present, a united, cohesive and forceful campaign to protect and maintain this essential service at Daisy Hill. I am appealing to all elected representatives to show leadership and join with us, the workforce and the community to stand up for Daisy Hill and clearly state to the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, enough is enough,” said Mr Ruane.

SDLP Assembly Member Justin McNulty has also revealed he is due to meet the Acting Chief Executive of the Trust this week to discuss the future of the Emergency Department.

Mr McNulty said the staffing crisis facing the Trust is “nothing new”, as they have been relying exclusively on locum cover since the end of January.  The SDLP MLA applauded the Southern Trust for their recruitment efforts to try and secure a permanent solution to the problem but added, “it now seems that politics has once again got in the way.  No Minister, no leadership in the department, and now no emergency cover in Daisy Hill.”

“Those currently working to find political agreement must not lose touch with reality, “ he said, urging all parties to show that “the protection of people’s health and public services is their top priority.”

“They must put their shoulder to the wheel and form an Executive sooner rather than later to provide leadership on this issue. The public will not accept any more failure.”

Meanwhile local union organisations have also expressed their concern over the Trust’s proposals, with Unite the union warning against what it described as “a sleight-of-hand attempt to close the facility” without proper public consultation

Demanding the retention of the local Emergency Department, Kevin McAdam, Unite Regional Officer, confirmed that Unite stood opposed to any diminution of facilities at Daisy Hill hospital and said the Trust’s statement had sent “a shudder of fear into the local community” who he said will be concerned that it is the precursor to a decision to close the Emergency Department permanently.

“HSC trusts justify decisions to close facilities on the basis of an inability to recruit the requisite staff but there is a strong sense that these are manufactured crises which enable the Trusts to make decisions that are known to be strongly opposed locally,” said Mr McAdam who claimed that the move was more to do with “implementing austerity budgets than either objective medical needs or the difficulty in recruiting consultants.”

“Unite would be very concerned that a decision to close this facility could be taken forward under cover of a temporary closure,” he added, questioning the timing of the so-called recruitment crisis during the present stalemate at Stormont.

“Instead of engineering crises, the HSC trusts would be better engaging with staff representative bodies and the local communities to determine the most sustainable approaches to healthcare provision.” he concluded.

UNISON’s Head of Bargaining and Representation in the Health sector, Anne Speed‎ also responded with alarm to the closure proposals and said that UNISON had warned the Department of Health and the Social Care Board over the last number of years that a lack of workforce planning would lead to such a crisis.

“Neither seems to have learned from what happened at the Belfast City Hospital where a lack of senior medical staff led to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department.”

“The A&E at Daisy Hill is in much demand and staff tell us that transferring demand to Craigavon Hospital will only move the crisis on and create similar problems at that hospital. The catchment area is vast from Newcastle to Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton and restriction of services will be a significant loss to the community.  Given the significant geographical spread, can patient safety be guaranteed?  There will be a clear knock on effect on staff in nursing and support services and we have yet to get information as to the impact on them.  We have no doubt that the community will strongly resist this development.”

Speaking to The Examiner about the impending healthcare crisis, Francis Gallagher of the Daisy Hill Action Group said local people have “a great battle ahead to retain their A&E department and thus Daisy Hill’s acute status” and called for the active support and participation of everyone to overcome the challenge.

“If the lights go out in Daisy Hill’s A&E they will not come on again and the ripples of this will be felt throughout the health service in the North,” said the action group chairman.

“What then will happen to the accident and emergency departments in the Causeway and Mater Hospitals? How will staff in the larger hospital A&Es cope with the increased workload?  It doesn’t make sense to close Daisy Hill A&E if the Department wants to provide safer healthcare throughout the North.”

Mr Gallagher – who believes the setting up of citizens conventions would allow ordinary people to have a say in Stormont negotiations on important issues like healthcare-  also questioned whether Daisy Hill is getting its fair share of doctors and other staff that are available to the federation of the Trust.

“In the light of this latest threat to Daisy Hill, I would be very surprised if the phones in the boardrooms of the Southern Health Trust were not red hot with offers of help from other Trust areas because it is in everyone’s interests to keep Daisy Hill’s A&E open,” he added.

The temporary closure proposals have been described as “potentially catastrophic” by the Republican party Saoradh, with activist Cliodhna McCool stressing that the decision could cost lives.

“It is undeniable that if Daisy Hill A&E closes it will result in the loss of lives. Would people in the Newry area in need of emergency medical treatment be expected to drive 25 miles further away?  Would people from the Kilkeel area be expected to face a 36 mile journey, a journey that would actually see them driving past Daisy Hill Hospital?

“This would have a detrimental effect on the people who need to avail of these services the most.”

Miss McCool added that the development “is evident of the failures of the Stormont Administration” and she urged the public “to throw their weight behind any campaign that emerges to save Daisy Hill Emergency Department.”