Edwin Poots staring into the abyss
Published 04/05/2013 | 07:59
Edwin Poots is no stranger to handling controversy, but Thursday turned out to be the toughest day of the beleaguered Health Minister's political career.
There have been few quiet days in the health service in recent weeks, but as the day of drama unfolded, it became clear that the DUP politician was under pressure like never before.
It started out with the simmering row over the closure of residential homes bursting into a full scale crisis.
Emotional relatives of residents in four residential homes earmarked for closure by the Western Health & Social Care Trust launched a scathing attack on the plans in front of under-fire health chiefs.
The group – who turned up at a public meeting to voice their outrage – were told they would not be allowed to address the trust board because they had not provided the required two weeks' notice.
However, that would have been impossible as the controversial plans were only made public earlier this week.
Instead, chairman of the trust, Gerard McGuckian, told the unlikely protesters they would be given the opportunity to speak at subsequent trust board meetings in June or August.
Of course, by then, it is likely the public consultation on the proposals will be over and the matter will be up for approval by senior health officials.
So it was hardly surprising that the meeting was interrupted several times by relatives and staff affected by the closures.
Josie McCann, whose 99-year-old mother, Letty, lives at Thackeray Place in Limavady, raged: "It would be very difficult to give two weeks' notice when we only found out about this meeting two days ago – and that was only because a reporter from the Belfast Telegraph told me that we were allowed to come here at all."
Another member of the public said: "There were people in Limavady in tears wondering where they are going to go. You already took my mother-in-law's home, now you are turfing her out of Thackeray Place.
"It is time for moral thinking. A terrible, terrible thing has been done and I don't know where society is going if we allow this to happen."
Carrying placards, the relatives and staff lobbed most of their criticism at Alan Corry Finn, director of primary care and older people, for the cack-handed way he had informed them of plans to close the homes.
They were joined by DUP East Londonderry MLA George Robinson who broke ranks to describe the handling of the situation as "shameful" and "scandalous".
It was a sign of things to come as Mr Poots faced a growing revolt from party colleagues over his blueprint for the future of health and social care in Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson and DUP heavyweight Gregory Campbell have even launched a petition aimed at saving Thackeray Place.
While all this was happening, the First and Deputy First Ministers weighed in to the row.
The pair, on a visit to Londonderry, were asked to comment on the emerging controversy and Peter Robinson – Mr Poots' boss – expressed concern over the number of residential homes under threat.
Neither explicitly gave him a vote of confidence, although Mr Robinson described his colleague as "a first class minister, an exceptional, caring minister as well". He added: "I think the policy, which was to approximately reduce by half the number of care homes over the next five years, was a sensible enough policy. I'm not quite sure how any trust can justify the closure of their homes and I think they need to seriously look at that."
Asked whether he had confidence in Mr Poots, Mr McGuinness replied: "Well, he's the minister," before adding that health was the most difficult department in the Executive.
He said: "Unfortunately, we have seen fear and anxiety on our TV screens over the last few days and that is unacceptable.
"I think it is incumbent on the department to get a grip on what is happening within the trust and make it clear that this is going to be dealt with in a very sensitive way to ensure that we meet the needs of our older generation."
As the fallout from the proposals grew throughout the day, Mr Poots took part in a series of interviews in a bid to minimise the public outcry. He was even forced to apologise for the distress caused by the proposals and admitted the handling of the situation was "disastrous".
For someone who has already faced a range of challenges during his time as health minister, the strain of the day was beginning to show.
During his tenure, he has faced concerns over the safety of premature babies in hospitals following a fatal outbreak of the superbug, pseudomonas, with relative composure.
He has been accused of homophobia over his refusal to allow gay men to donate blood and his legal bid to stop gay couples from adopting – but remains unapologetic for his stance.
Mr Poots even reduced the opening hours at Lagan Valley Hospital's A&E – in his own constituency – apparently unconcerned that it would affect his chances of re-election.
But yesterday, he appeared rattled by the public reaction to the proposed closures – culminating in a call by a leading public service union for his resignation. And in another twist, Mr Poots chose yesterday to announce the resignation of the chief executive of the failing Northern Health & Social Care Trust.
As Patricia McKeown from Unison demanded Mr Poots stand down, she claimed the announcement that Sean Donaghy is to go was made to deflect attention from Mr Poots' own failings to manage the health service.
"The timing of the announcement, when it has finally been realised by everyone that this minister is attempting to privatise the health service, does seem a bit of a coincidence," she said.
Undoubtedly, this is not a day that Mr Poots will forget, or ever want to repeat.