Fears grow over closure of Daisy Hill A&E services
Concerns have been voiced that a £1million contingency plan for staff shortages at Newry's Daisy Hill Hospital could be the first step towards the closure of its Accident & Emergency (A&E) department.
The proposals were approved for Portadown's Craigavon Area Hospital should Daisy Hill's A&E services be suspended at night.
If the emergency department closes at Daisy Hill, campaigners say patients will be forced to make a journey of up to two hours to Craigavon Area, which is already under a huge strain with a high turnover of patients.
While the £1m contingency plan has been approved for Craigavon hospital to take on emergency patients from the south Down if needed, the move has stirred outrage.
Last year, more than 53,000 people attended the A&E service at Daisy Hill hospital.
Newry and Armagh MP Mickey Brady said he believed the Southern Health Trust was "set on a course of closing Daisy Hill emergency department".
The Sinn Fein politician was among politicians who attended Thursday's meeting at the trust's headquarters in Craigavon.
Mr Brady told the BBC: "I had hoped that the trust would have been offering a solution to the ongoing concerns about staff cover at Daisy Hill Emergency Department. However, what was announced was a recipe to ensure its eventual closure and ultimately the removal of its acute hospital status. We cannot allow this to happen."
SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said some of her constituents living in inaccessible areas of the Mournes would have to travel up to two hours to get to Craigavon hospital.
She said: "If there's no emergency services at Daisy Hill at the weekend or at night, there will be a constituency, and people in inaccessible places like the Mournes, having to travel nearly two hours to get to Craigavon, in grave levels of distress and pain. That is totally unacceptable."
The Southern Health Trust had previously said the emergency service at the Newry hospital was vulnerable at night due to a shortage of permanent senior medical staff and its board was asked to confirm the contingency plan.
The trust said in a statement: "The trust continues to actively engage with the board, department and colleagues in other trusts in exploring every option to secure a sustainable service.
"As the service remains vulnerable at night due to the shortage of permanent senior medical staff, contingency arrangements will be outlined to ensure patients can continue to access safe, high-quality care in the unfortunate event that medical cover could not be secured for more than one night."
According to sources there are just two permanent senior medics at the trust with one part-time, with the remaining shifts operated by locum doctors.
There should be around 10 senior permanent doctors on the staff but recruitment drives have been unsuccessful.
The trust said sending patients to Craigavon hospital would be a "last resort", and that it was "continuing to make every effort to avoid any temporary reduction in hours in the short term".