COUNCIL TO TOP CIVIL SERVANT: BACK OFF FROM MIUs

ARDS and North Down Council is to demand a top civil servant backs off from a final decision on shutting Bangor and Ards hospital units.

The local authority is to write to the man currently running the Department of Health, permanent secretary Peter May, insisting that the final verdict on two Minor Injuries Units (MIUs) shouldn’t come in until Stormont is up and running again.

At the end of June, the South Eastern Health Trust’s board unanimously voted to scrap both MIUs in favour of building a new unit in Dundonald’s Ulster Hospital.

The Trust got a total of 388 responses to its three-month public consultation on the issue, more than 80% of which were opposed to the closures, as well as a 19,000-strong petition demanding their axe plans be called off.

But Trust chief executive Roisin Coulter described that as ‘a relatively small number of responses considering the population of Ards and North Down, albeit alongside a petition which is being factored in’.

The health body wants to close both units in order to open a new MIU with expanded opening hours in the Ulster Hospital, with long-term ambitions to then replace that facility with an Urgent Care Centre.

The plan is to shut both Bangor and Ards MIUs for good this year, with the £4m Urgent Care facility to follow in 2025.

The final decision on whether or not to let that go ahead lies with the person at the top of Northern Ireland’s health system.

Normally that would be a Health Minister, but with Stormont out of action Mr May has the final say.

During a council meeting last week, local politicians voted to write to the permanent secretary calling on him to hold off until the Northern Ireland Assembly is back and a democratically accountable minister can make the call.

That’s except for Alliance, who have consistently been in favour of scrapping the Bangor and Ards MIUs to make way for the Urgent Care Centre.

All 11 Alliance councillors present at last week’s meeting voted against asking the permanent secretary to hold fire.

Said the party’s council group leader, councillor Martin McRandal: “It will come as no surprise to anybody that we won’t be supporting [this move].

“The Alliance Party position on these proposals has been clear throughout, we’ve spoken on this several times now.

“These planned changes are in line with recommendations signed up to by the five main parties; they’re in line with recommendations from clinicians in the front line; quite frankly, changes such as this are required to ensure the survival of our struggling health service.”

All 26 councillors from other parties present at last Wednesday night’s meeting enthusiastically backed the idea of calling on the permanent secretary to back off, with independent unionist councillor Wesley Irvine arguing ‘decisions like this should be made by someone locally accountable, not a civil servant’.

DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen said that Trust’s consultation ‘had the feel of a fait accompli, all very stage-managed and box-ticking’.

“This is not going to work out well for the people of this borough,” added Mr McIlveen, who is the DUP group leader on the council.

“I’ve consistently said that this is a great decision for the people of East Belfast; it does not deliver good outcomes for the people of Ards and North Down.

“And I think the Alliance Party will be judged very poorly for the stance they took on this.”

Independent councillor Ray McKimm accused the Trust of ignoring ‘the biggest petition to ever come out of this borough’, adding that health officials have ‘questions to answer about the lawfulness of many parts of this process’.

Green group leader, councillor Barry McKee, said that ‘there can be no doubt the majority of the public do not support the moving of services to the Ulster’, while councillor Philip Smith, leader of the UUP faction, argued that the MIU axe process ‘illustrates the impotence of politics in Northern Ireland’.

“Peter May will potentially make a decision on this, and he is elected by nobody,” said Mr Smith.

“These are decisions made by the Trust that will then go to civil servants, and will impact the people of this borough, yet there will be no democratic input on it.

“Whether you’re for or against, it would surely be better to have a minister make that decision rather than a civil servant.”