A&E probe by human rights body to cost £70k
An inquiry into the state of Northern Ireland's beleaguered accident and emergency departments is set to cost £70,000, it can be revealed.
The Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has announced an unprecedented probe into standards at A&E departments that will have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence at public hearings.
And it said it will protect healthcare workers who want to turn whistleblower.
In recent months, a catalogue of horror stories has emerged from Northern Ireland's casualty wards.
Patients have often been left on trolleys for many hours, with staff often finding themselves overstretched.
NIHRC director Virginia McVea told the Stormont health committee that the public hearings want to hear evidence from senior departmental chiefs and Health Minister Edwin Poots.
The inquiry has been asked to find out whether the human rights of people seeking emergency care are properly respected, protected and fulfilled in practice.
The commission will publish its final report and recommendations to the Northern Ireland Executive in April 2015.
It is estimated that its work will cost £70,000 to complete.
Ms McVea said it was vital that as many people as possible came forward to give evidence of their experiences, both good and bad.
A confidential telephone line has been set up to receive calls and public hearings will be held between September and October in various locations.
Ms McVea added that if required, witnesses can give evidence anonymously during the public hearings that will be held across the province.
"In terms of whistleblowing, the Human Rights Commission is a recognised agency," she said.
"We recognise people may feel very anxious indeed. We have been approached by healthcare workers but we have been working very closely with unions to make sure we have all the systems in place that their members can feel confident and comfortable in approaching us."
Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin, the chair of the health committee, said she had called for a robust inquiry to take place that would include the Health Minister.
She added: "The crisis in our emergency care service is well known, but it is much wider than that and the whole healthcare system needs to be looked at."
In January the Belfast Trust called a Major Incident at the Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency department. Around 40 people were left waiting on trolleys at one stage, with staff describing conditions in the unit as "like Beirut". In February, it emerged a delay in treatment at the RVH emergency department may have contributed to the death of five patients in 2013.