Northern Ireland surgery with 5,200 patients but no GPs will remain open, say health chiefs
A GP surgery that serves more than 5,000 people in a Co Armagh town has secured a temporary reprieve after fears that it was set to close in just over a week's time.
Last night assurances were given that the troubled Bannview Medical Practice in Portadown would stay open despite the fact its last GP is leaving on January 16.
It has been estimated that keeping it open using locums will cost £500 per day.
Staffing issues at the practice are believed to have been flagged up two years ago, with the surgery reaching crisis point last August when the second of its three GPs left, leaving just one doctor to look after 5,200 patients.
The remaining doctor resigned in December and will finish on January 16.
The crisis was highlighted recently when a bereaved family hit out at the GP shortages after they were left in limbo for days unable to bury a beloved grandfather. Vincent McGibbon died on New Year's Eve, but a death certificate could not be issued until late on January 3 by under-pressure staff.
Other GP practices in the town held an emergency meeting two weeks ago to discuss the possible closure of the practice amid fears that their already overstretched surgeries would be asked to take on Bannview's patients.
With Portadown practices already working to capacity, all six applied for a "temporary list closure" to prevent their surgeries being swamped.
With no news of alternative arrangements in place, patients were left in limbo.
Amid growing pressure to clarify the situation, the Health and Social Care Board issued a statement last night apologising for the confusion and reassuring patients that the practice would stay open. The board said it was in negotiations with a potential contractor to take over the surgery. However, patients remained unconvinced and a protest planned for outside the surgery tomorrow is due to go ahead.
Patient Tony Hendron, who led calls for the protest, said the surgery was accepting emergency appointments only this week.
"It might as well be closed as you can't get an appointment. How long is that going to last for?" he asked. "People are worried and that's the bottom line. The board has known about the problems for two years and still has not resolved it."
Mr Hendron, who has been registered at Bannview for 40 years, said people were anxious and angry about the future of the surgery. "We are now basically Bannview medical refugees who have been left in limbo. The other practices are also at tipping point and could collapse as well if they are forced to take on the 5,200 patients from Bannview," he said.
"It is an unprecedented situation. This is supposed to be the 21st century and our health service in Portadown is falling apart."
In its statement the board said it wanted to "apologise to all patients for the current inconvenience".
It added: "The Health and Social Care Board can confirm that Bannview Medical Practice in Portadown will not close on January 16, 2017. We would like to reassure patients of the practice that high quality and safe GP services will continue to be provided from this date. No decisions have been made to close the practice.
"The board is currently in discussions with a potential contractor to take over Bannview Medical Practice and we will provide a further update to all patients with developments as they progress."
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said: "Having been brought to the precipice, it now looks like the Health and Social Care Board will at last put measures in place to keep the Bannview practice open beyond January 13. I am led to believe they will be doing so by employing locum GPs to cover the practice at a cost of £500 a day per GP until a contractor can take over the practice.
"This news is welcome, but having received a letter from the GPs at Portadown Health Centre on December 23, 2016 telling them about the imminent closure of the Bannview practice, I find it unacceptable that the HSCB have waited until now, and only after considerable media attention, to put patients' minds at rest."