Minister Edwin Poots fighting to save his career as calls grow for him to quit over care homes cull
Health Minister Edwin Poots is fighting for his political life as the backlash grows over plans to axe statutory residential homes around Northern Ireland.
Leading public service union Unison has described Mr Poots' position as "untenable" and called for him to step down.
Yesterday the Western Trust became the latest NI trust to confirm it plans to close all its NHS homes.
The Western Trust defended its actions, saying it had tried to be "honest" with people during its discussions.
And in a highly unusual move the First and Deputy First Ministers have even weighed into the row.
When asked if he had confidence in Mr Poots as health minister, Martin McGuinness said: "Well, he's the minister," before adding that health is the most difficult department in the Executive.
"Unfortunately, we have seen fear and anxiety 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."
It comes as a number of Mr Poots' party colleagues launched a petition to save one of the residential homes earmarked for closure in the Western Health and Social Care Trust.
The controversial proposals from the Northern, Southern and Western health and social care trusts are part of Mr Poots' vision to save the health service here.
His review of health and social care – Transforming Your Care – has called for trusts to deliver more care in the community and recommended the closure of half of statutory residential homes.
Mr Poots has been forced to come out fighting after three health trusts announced plans to shut all their residential homes and blamed the proposals on TYC.
Speaking yesterday, Mr Poots said: "I would be very surprised if all of the homes in all of the trusts closed. The handling of this has been disastrous and I accept that. I'm very disappointed in the way this has been managed.
"I want to apologise to those elderly people who have been distressed as a result of this."
However, the Northern Health & Social Care Trust's public consultation document on the plans reveal it has already given consideration to the human impact of the closures and wants to press ahead with them anyway.
Patricia McKeown from Unison said: "The buck stops with the minister, TYC is his plan and no-one else's. He is overseeing plans to privatise the health service and the public can see that now. It is time for him to go."
The union also pointed to "UK and international evidence that this involuntary transfer of older people can, in fact, create problems of mental and physical health and even bring premature death".
A statement said: "The political scramble for cover as a result of public outrage over the closure of our NHS residential homes is sickening.
"Minister Poots passes the blame to trusts. The First and Deputy First Minister back Poots' privatisation plans and blame the health department. MLAs point the finger at trusts.
"Instead of crying crocodile tears the health minister should stand down."
The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, Claire Keatinge, has also expressed concern.
She said: "I previously met with Minister Poots and was assured that there was no overall strategy that proposed such widespread closure of statutory residential care homes.
"I am deeply shocked and surprised at these proposals.
"Any proposals to close statutory residential care homes must put current residents at the heart of decision making and protect their rights."