HOSPITAL units in Newtownards and Bangor are to be axed after the man at the top of Northern Ireland’s health service backed the move.

Permanent secretary Peter May runs the Department of Health in the absence of a minister. Yesterday afternoon he gave his verdict on two local Minor Injuries Units (MIUs) – and both are for the chop.

A formal date for the closures hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s known the body behind the axe bid, the South Eastern Health Trust, was recently thinking of getting rid of them both as early as next week.

That’s despite a huge public outcry against the move, and an attempt to launch a judicial review that campaigners hope will put a temporary halt to the closures.

The Trust wants to build a new Urgent Care Centre in Dundonald’s Ulster Hospital, but claims it needs to axe both MIUs in order to do it.

The Bangor unit has been shut since Covid hit, said at the time to be a temporary measure, while Ards MIU has been operating on reduced hours.

The Trust wants to close both for good to open a new MIU with extended operating hours in Dundonald, then in the longer term build the Urgent Care Centre at the Ulster.

It’s widely regarded as a cut to local health services in order to take pressure off the Ulster Hospital’s struggling A&E – but in his verdict yesterday afternoon, Mr May maintained that the Trust has the right idea.

“Among the considerations I have taken into account are the improvements which the change will bring,” said the top civil servant.

“The merged MIU [in Dundonald] will be open seven days a week for longer hours and will be doctor-led, which will expand the range of conditions that can be treated.

“The Trust’s plans will also pave the way for the delivery of an Urgent Care Centre in due course after the necessary enabling works have taken place. This development is in line with departmental policy.”

Mr May also stated that the Trust should have a phone-first system for the Dundonald MIU in place by the end of October, and put a condition on his approval so that officials have to ‘take actions to put in place’ the Urgent Care Centre before the end of 2024.

Local politicians, health campaigners and thousands of ordinary people have registered their opposition to the Trust’s axe plans since they were unveiled in February, arguing that it will make vital care much more difficult for people in Bangor, Newtownards and the Ards peninsula to reach.

But the South Eastern Trust welcomed Mr May’s backing of its axe plan, with chief executive Roisin Coulter stating that when the Urgent Care Centre is eventually built it will ‘provide the community with a more comprehensive service than is currently available at the Ards MIU, as well as helping to improve patient flow through the Emergency Department at the Ulster Hospital’.

“This is a more sustainable model of care in the future,” she added.

“Having a new consultant-led Urgent Care Centre [in the same building as] the new Emergency Department at the Ulster Hospital will give patients easier access to medical assessment and clinical investigations, if required, on the same site.”
The Trust chief executive said that she wanted to thank staff in both Bangor and Ards MIUs ‘for the excellent care and service they have provided to the community’.

She also maintained that the Trust ‘remains committed to both the Ards and Bangor community hospitals’, stating that they will ‘continue to deliver a wider range of primary and community care services’.

Recent figures showed that despite its reduced hours, over the past five years Ards MIU consistently got a perfect score on government waiting targets, making it the best performing emergency care unit in the South Eastern Trust area.