Council calls for meeting with Trust chief as casualty starts closing overnight
by STACEY HEANEY
`What happens when a constituent arrives at the door at ten past eight? Are they to be told to go elsewhere?'
LISBURN City Council is seeking an urgent meeting with the Chief Executive of the South Eastern Health Trust amid claims they were not properly informed about plans to close the casualty unit at the Lagan Valley at night because of a shortage of junior doctors.
At a Council meeting on Tuesday night, just hours after it was confirmed the unit would be shut from 8pm to 9am every night, members of the Corporate Services Committee said that when they met senior Trust officials last week they were told of staffing difficulties - but not about any immediate plans to close A&E overnight.
But, they said, just 24 hours later it was revealed that was exactly what was to happen.
However, a Trust spokesperson said at the meeting senior managers had spelled out exactly what could happen.
"Charlotte McArdle (Director of Primary Care, Older People & Executive Director of Nursing) made specific and detailed reference to recruitment difficulties and the likelihood of failing to fill the posts would result in reduced hours at the Emergency Department in Lagan Valley Hospital" the spokesperson said. The decision to cut the opening hours at the A&E to 9am-8pm from next Monday (August 1) brought united condemnation from councillors.
Members demanded to know why the shortage of trained staff has been allowed to occur.
The chairman of the Corporate Services committee, Councillor Stephen Martin, said of the meeting with the Trust last week:
"They made no mention of the imminent reduction. We were assured this was an issue they were working very hard on and that no decision would be taken on the opening hours at the hospital.
"Staff, in particular, were not officially told until today (Tuesday). They were completely unaware and when they approached their managers were assured that what was in the press was not an accurate scenario. I'm genuinely astonished."
Mr. Martin continued: "What happens when a constituent arrives at the door at ten past eight? Are they to be told to go elsewhere? I am extremely concerned about the long term viability of the A&E."
Mr Martin proposed a special meeting be called with the Trust Chief Executive and/or a senior manager.
Alderman Jonathan Craig suggested the Chief Executive and/or a senior manager from the NI Ambulance Service be invited to the meeting to discuss how the changes will affect that service.
Mr. Martin added: "I would ask the Council to consider taking what is
pro-active step and engaging with the Trust showing constituents that we have their back and ensuring the long-term viability o the hospital."
Councillor Pat Catney also expresses his concerns about last week's
Corporate Services meeting.
At that meeting I said I believed the decision was already made; I was told it was not. I did ask them that question directly and was told there was no decision made he said.
The proposal received unanimous support from each Council member and each party, and Alderman Paul Porter encouraged the Council to fight for "the best services" for local constituents.
Responding to the claims a Trust spokesperson said: "The meeting was attended by Charlotte McArdle, Director of Primary Care, Older People & Executive Director of Nursing along with John Simpson, Director of Planning, Information & Performance Management and two other senior managers.
"Mrs McArdle made specific and detailed reference to recruitment difficulties and the likelihood of failing to fill the posts would result in reduced hours at the Emergency Department in Lagan Valley Hospital. Mr Simpson also discussed the matter and referred members of the Corporate Committee to the Minister's statement dated 7 July 2011 which stated: 'I have been made aware of anticipated shortages of junior doctors in the service form the beginning of August with specific pressures facing the A&E units. I have asked the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) to work with all Trusts to examine the pressures being faced and ensure that the best possible contingency plans are in place to ensure A&E units remain safe and effective.'
"This matter was so specifically referenced that the Trust would feel certain that this discussion would be contained within the minutes of the meeting."
THE trade union UNISON has said it believes the reduction of a 24 hour service at Lagan Valley Hospital to a 9 to 8 service will result in loss of life.
A spokesperson said: "We are disappointed that the South Eastern Trust are moving ahead with the planned reduction at this time as there has been no public consultation.
"If there are difficulties with the recruitment of junior doctors covering A&E at Lagan Valley then the South Eastern Trust should be looking for additional cover from the Ulster Hospital. "UNISON is seeking urgent meetings with the local council and all MPs and MLAs within the area and the Chief Executive of the South Eastern Trust."
John Gilgunn, joint Branch Secretary of UNISON said: "This is totally wrong what the Trust are proposing to implement, and there is no doubt that people's lives will be put at risk as the Accident and Emergency departments across all Trusts are unable to cope at the minute."
ALDERMAN Paul Porter told Tuesday's council meeting it was important they did not sit back and allow "interim measures" to become permanent.
"The people we feel for are patients and staff" he said. This isn't political, this is about people. As a Council, we must unite to represent the people of Lagan Valley. I stand up for the people I represent," he said.
"We stood here when maternity services were threatened and would be lost. Did we accept that? No. We started a campaign. We as a Council can actually lobby, we can represent the people of Lagan Valley. The letter we've received says temporary changes to the A&E at the Lagan Valley Hospital. This is an interim measure chosen to address the drop in the number of junior doctors. It is up to us to ensure is does not become permanent."
Councillor Pat Catney added: "I was at a party on Saturday for a young junior doctor who is going off to Australia. It's a shame we're losing people, we are training them to lose them.
"If someone takes ill in the middle of the night and is lost because of this it is not an interim measure, it's fatal, it's done, it's finished."
Alderman Jonathan Craig said the "Trust has an awful lot of questions to answer."
He added: "Why are we now in this position? Why can't we get junior doctors to go to Lagan Valley? The recruitment is very restrictive and the fact that they only give them an annual contract is unattractive. If a junior doctor is looking for a career in the health sector they are certainly not going somewhere to only be there for a year. I can't help but feel the Trust is working to an agenda with the Lagan Valley and is bit by bit destroying it."
Alderman Jim Dillon said: "This is really a sad day for this Council, a sad day for those who work in the Lagan Valley and a sad day for the constituents of Lagan Valley that the A&E is reduced by half."
Mr Dillon said that the opening hours of 9am-8pm, rather than the 9am-5pm announced last week, "is a move perhaps in the right direction. However, he urged the Council to "do all we possibly can as elected members to try to resolve this situation."
Councillor Arder Carson said the decision would "impact on the 125,000 people who use the hospital."
He added: "The Lagan Valley provides an efficient service to the people who use it, and I have used it myself. The timing is a key one.
"This will be very difficult for the people of Lisburn. This is going to be introduced on Monday and some people may not know about the changes or know what to do in an emergency. The Trust say they spoke to stakeholders, but did they speak to the key stakeholders, the people of Lisburn this will affect?"
Councillor Brian Dornan said that as someone who has just finished a long career with the health service the staff would be 'delighted with the degree of support coming from the chamber'.
He added: "It is important to state to the community that we have to
accept there will be changes, but it important we carve out the future
of Lagan Valley."