TWO local Minor Injuries Units (MIUs) could shut for good as early as next month.
That’s even though the man at the top of Northern Ireland’s health service hasn’t yet decided whether or not the hospital units in Bangor and Newtownards should be closed at all.
Local NHS bosses are eyeing a closure date in September, this newspaper can reveal, and it’s understood that MIU staff have provisionally been told the axe will fall within the first fortnight of the month.
But the local health trust maintains that closure dates so far put forward ‘are not confirmed’, as Department of Health permanent secretary Peter May hasn’t yet signed off on its plans to shut the units.
A spokeswoman for the South Eastern Health Trust yesterday confirmed that staff have been told of ‘possible dates in September 2023’ on which the MIU closures could happen.
The spokeswoman added: “The Trust has made it very clear that this is subject to the Department of Health’s decision on the public consultation [on closing the MIUs].
“As this has not been received at this stage, the proposed dates or way forward are not confirmed.”
Trust officials told staff closure dates before knowing whether the axe will actually fall because they ‘want to ensure that all staff have an opportunity to fully participate in the planning of any change, should the proposal be approved by the department’, the spokeswoman stated.
“As an employer, the Trust has a duty to prepare for potential future developments,” said the spokeswoman. “This includes keeping staff informed.
“We have commenced this process with the clear understanding that the Trust does not have Department of Health approval for this change, and this has been communicated to staff.”
The Trust’s latest move will come as a shock to people involved in an ongoing campaign to save the MIUs, not least as it could be seen as jumping the gun by naming closure dates before Peter May has had a chance to make a formal decision.
Campaigners are currently preparing to launch a judicial review of the Trust’s closure bid, arguing that its handling of the process could have serious issues that need to be investigated.
And just three weeks ago, Ards and North Down Council voted to officially call on Mr May to back off from making any decision until Stormont is up and running again, arguing that hospital unit closures should be in the hands of a democratically elected minister instead of a senior civil servant.
The Trust 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 a new Urgent Care Centre in Dundonald.
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 Bangor unit was shuttered when Covid hit; said at the time to be a temporary measure, throughout this year’s closure bid that temporary move has been treated as a de facto permanent one.
Meanwhile the Ards MIU has been operating on reduced hours – though recent figures showed that over the past five years it consistently got a perfect score on government waiting targets, making it the best performing emergency care unit in the South Eastern Trust area.
At the end of June, the Trust’s board unanimously voted to axe both MIUs in favour of the new Dundonald facility, despite a 19,000-strong petition against the move and more than 80% of people who responded to the official public consultation being opposed to it.