Fight to save A&E at Downe

Fight to save A&E at Downe

14 October 2020

BATTLE lines have been drawn in the fight to have the Downe Hospital’s emergency department reopened.

Politicians, health campaigners and trade union officials have joined forces as part of a new offensive to spearhead a major campaign aimed at securing the future of the service.

Closed at the end of March as part of the South Eastern Trust’s response to Covid-19, the emergency department was due to reopen next Monday before an eleventh hour decision to shelve the move due to what have been described as staffing issues.

An online petition containing 2,000 signatures calling for the immediate restoration of emergency services was presented to the Assembly yesterday, while a detailed response to the decision not to reopen the service next week as planned is being compiled.

Instead of reinstating emergency services, hospital administrators are launching a new appointment only, consultant-led urgent care centre at the Downe.

And while insisting that they are committed to the hospital, they have confirmed that they are not in a position to say when the emergency department will reopen.

Administrators say the planned reopening of the emergency services was “subject to a number of critical factors” which included workforce availability and the ability to safely deliver urgent and emergency care.

They say they have always been very clear that they would reopen the emergency department when it was safe to do so, but are no longer able to fully restore the service at this time.

While health officials insist that they recognise the need to improve access to urgent and emergency care services for people in the Down area, there is concern that with just days to go before the new centre opens, there are no details about how it will operate and what patients it can treat.

There is also increasing concern that the decision not to reopen the emergency department will place increased pressure on the Ambulance Service which has no plans to increase its current level of cover across the district where its response times have been heavily criticised.

The opening salvo in the battle for the immediate reopening of emergency services took place on the floor of the Assembly yesterday when the online petition was presented to speaker Alex Maskey by South Down MLA Colin McGrath.

He also asked that the issue be referred to the Stormont health minister Robin Swann and the health committee for debate.

Politicians are also seeking meetings with Mr Swann and senior officials from the South Eastern Trust as work on the detailed community response to the decision not to restore emergency services at the Downe takes shape.

It is being compiled by hospital campaigners, trade union officials and elected representatives who took part in an online meeting last week organised by South Down MP Chris Hazzard.

Mr Hazzard warned that there were different dynamics at play and it was a “lazy narrative” to suggest that the emergency department cannot reopen due to Covid and that deferring the reopening was a reasonable thing to do. Mr Hazzard argued this was not the case.

Politicians and campaigners say they remain concerned at the lack of consultation over the decision not to reopen the Downe’s A&E next week amid suggestions that no one under 18 will be able to access it, alongside patients experiencing acute pain or various medical conditions including asthma.

Those opposed to the delayed reopening of the emergency department insist that it’s never good to implement change in the middle of a crisis and are concerned that they have not been given any detail about how the new urgent care centre will operate.

Politicians, health campaigners and trade union officials who attended at last week’s meeting say they do not accept a shortage of staff argument as an explanation for any crisis at the Downe Hospital in an area which is literally “teaming with nursing and care staff and where there are no problems getting doctors to work locally”.

They say if a handful of staff are what’s needs to reopen the emergency department at the Downpatrick hospital then this should happen without delay.