United front to save Downe A&E services

United front to save Downe A&E services

14 October 2020

POLITICIANS, health campaigners and trade union officials are to join forces in a major new campaign to secure the future of emergency services at the Downe Hospital.

They met last Friday to discuss the controversial decision by the South Eastern Trust not to restore emergency services as planned on Monday of next week.

Instead, health officials have outlined plans for a new consultant-led urgent care network at the Downe which can only be accessed on an appointment basis and will operate five days a week.

However, there’s increasing concern that what cases the new service will be able to deal with has not yet been made public, with suggestions that no one under 18 will be able to access it, alongside patients experiencing acute pain or various medical conditions including asthma.

The South Eastern Trust insists that it’s committed to the Downe and that since its commitment in July to reopen the emergency department next week, it has experienced further staffing challenges.

The organisation said it is now clear “that we are no longer able to fully restore the emergency services provided pre-Covid-19 at this time”.

Significantly, health officials say they are not in a position to confirm when the Downe’s A&E service will be reinstated, which has sent alarm bells ringing across the community. 

There is also concern about the absence of detail in relation to the staffing issues the health trust is experiencing, with warnings that key services at the Downpatrick hospital cannot be “cannibalised” to prop up services in Lisburn and Belfast.

Emergency services were temporarily removed from the Downe at the end of March to allow health officials to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic with politicians and campaigners accusing hospital administrators of using Covid-19 as a “camouflage to close services”. 

During last week’s Zoom meeting — organised by South Down MP Chris Hazzard — it was agreed to draw up a detailed response to the decision not to reopen emergency services which will be formally handed over shortly.

Politicians and campaigners are also concerned that the decision not to reopen the Downe’s A&E will place increased pressure on the Ambulance Service which has confirmed it has no plans to increase its level of cover across the district where its response times have been heavily criticised.

Mr Hazzard said there was a need to reinforce the message that the situation at the Downe Hospital is not happening because of Covid.

“There are different dynamics at play here and there will be a lazy narrative to suggest that this has to happen because of Covid and that we are in unprecedented times and this is a reasonable thing to do. It isn’t’,” the MP declared.

South Down MLA Emma Rogan expressed concern at the lack of consultation on the decision not to restore A&E services and the ability of the Ambulance Service to respond to emergencies when the new urgent care centre opens.

She also called for clarity on how many staff based at the Downe have been redeployed to work in other hospitals.

“The South Down community was left dismayed last week by the decision to bin plans to reopen the Downe A&E, opting instead for an urgent care centre, operating on an appointment only basis.  This decision was entirely unacceptable and concerns were further compounded by the absence of consultation with health workers and the local community,” she said.

Colin McGrath MLA said he was pleased that all political parties have joined forces to discuss the best possible way to prepare for the battle ahead.

He declared: “The people of Mid and South Down are literally being robbed of emergency medical cover in favour of those that live in Belfast or Co Antrim. With an acute shortage of ambulance cover, especially in the rural areas, we are sleepwalking into a scenario where there will be death as a result.”

Mr McGrath said the South Eastern Trust and health minister Robin Swann must listen to the views of the community and deliver a “time bound and immediate solution” to the problem that they have created.

Strangford MLA Harry Harvey said he was “shocked” by the decision not to reopen the Downe’s emergency department and genuinely thought that everything was okay and that this would happen as planned,

Cllr John Trainor said the health minister needed to realise that Covid was not stopping the restoration of services at the Downe, warning that moving people out of the local area put pressure on hospitals elsewhere.

Rowallane councillor Kathryn Owen said the South Eastern Trust decision had left her “absolutely devastated”.

She asked how someone who suffered a heart attack was meant to “book an appointment” at the proposed urgent care centre and what guarantee there was that an ambulance will be available to take them there.

She added: “I have been left bamboozled by the decision and there are clearly more questions than answers. What is happening with emergency services in our part of the world is giving me sleepless nights.”

Cllr Patrick Brown argued that the decision not to restore services at the Downe was not last minute, agreeing that the narrative must not be that the hospital’s emergency department remains closed due to coronavirus.

Cllrs Harold McKee and Alan Lewis expressed their concern at the decision, with Cllr insisting that he did not accept the reason given for delaying the reopening of the emergency department. He said other hospitals could have an A&E and so should the Downe.

Cllr Oonagh Hanlon said that while politicians were given an assurance in July that the Downe’s ED would reopen next week “the rug has been pulled from under them”.

She said the power to reverse the decision rested with the health minister and that he should act.