Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has pledged £2m in funding for the Northern Ireland Hospice, securing its future.
The move from Edwin Poots comes just days after the Belfast Telegraph detailed the plight of displaced patients who have been forced to move from the hospice premises in north Belfast because of its dilapidated state.
This paper understands that Mr Poots offered a £2m financial lifeline to hospice representatives during a private meeting of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night.
The charity, which provides vital end-of-life care, had faced an uncertain future because of doubts over funding. It needs to raise £11m to restore its north Belfast headquarters and a number of US donors had indicated they would only support the work if the hospice received financial backing from the Executive.
The minister would not confirm the details of the offer last night, but a department spokeswoman said: “The minister has asked officials to look urgently at the possibility of introducing a capital grant scheme.”
Mr Poots is understood to have offered £2m towards building the new hospice on its original north Belfast site.
The offer came with a caveat that the money is spent by March — which will fast-track construction, due to start this spring, and see the facility ready to open ahead of its 2014 finish date.
Recent weeks have been a low-point in the hospice’s history.
On November 7, staff were compelled to move 18 seriously ill patients from the crumbling Victorian-era Somerton House, which has been operating in north Belfast for just over 20 years. The hospice needs £11m for the project to restore the building. In the smaller and distinctly more clinical surroundings of the hospice’s £65,000-a-year temporary accommodation in Whiteabbey Hospital, staff last week described how several potential donors keen to bankroll the project were unwilling to commit without Executive backing.
Within 24 hours of that exclusive interview, 600 people had contacted the hospice offering their support for the campaign.
What they have described as a groundswell of support from the public did not go unnoticed in the corridors of Stormont. The proof was revealed at Thursday night’s private meeting.
A hospice spokeswoman said it would await direction from the Department of Health.
She said: “We have not received any formal written confirmation.
“Until then, we will continue with our lobbying campaign and with our postcard campaign to raise £2.5m from the Executive and £3m from the public to make this vision a reality.”
Neil Donnan was among patients who were moved to the hospice’s temporary unit.
Days later, the 53-year-old, who is the advanced stages of a disease, was rushed to hospital for emergency treatment.
Heather Weir, the hospice’s director of nursing and patient services, who spoke to Neil and his wife Julie on Thursday, said the father-of-three dreams of securing the hospice’s future.
Ms Weir said: “Neil is very adamant. What he said to me was: ‘Heather, if there is anything I can do to bring my voice to anyone, anywhere that helps the hospice, I will do it’.
“His sons and daughter have said they would prefer him to be in the hospice because they did not really want the memory of their dad dying at home. Neil actually calls the hospice home.”
SDLP health spokesman Conall McDevitt said: “I would hope the minister would be able to confirm as soon as possible what he has said privately.
“I think all of us have been affected positively by the hospice, and there is an overwhelming sense in the Assembly and the community that end-of-life care is something we need to invest in.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “Due to budgetary constraints, no capital funding for the voluntary and community sector is available within the department at present.
“However, the minister has asked officials to look urgently at the possibility of introducing a capital grant scheme.
“The NI Hospice regional organisation currently receives departmental core funding to support central administrative costs, amounting to £134,000 per annum.
“In addition, it receives funding for the provision of palliative care services from various HSC bodies. In year ending March 2011, this amounted to £3.2m.”
‘If it hadn’t been for the Tele, it would have taken us months’
Saturday was as busy as it gets in the Northern Ireland Hospice.
More than 600 people contacted the charity in the 24 hours after the Belfast Telegraph revealed the plight of seriously ill patients being moved from the crumbling accommodation last week. The messages were all the same — pledges of moral or financial support.
People were spurred into action by the words of staff and relatives of patients at the hospice.
In the week that followed, hospice staff were inundated by similar messages which have been emailed, phoned in or posted on Facebook and Twitter.
What staff describe as a groundswell of support has not gone unnoticed.
On Thursday night, during a private meeting with Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Health Minister Edwin Poots is understood to have offered to commit £2m to building a state-of-the art new hospice on its original north Belfast site.
A visit to the Victorian-era Somerton House gives an insight into the project’s urgency.
With one shower for 18 patients — and one toilet for more than 70 relatives — as well as creeping damp and rotting walls, staff had no other option but to abandon the building on November 7.
They need £11m to rebuild on the same site, where it has been based for more than 20 years.
But the failure of the Government to commit just £2.5m — until now — has stalled several potential donors waiting in the wings with the remainder of the cash.
The irony was not lost on people who got as far as the reception at Somerton House.
The contractors are in place and planning permission granted. All that was needed was the £2.5m cash injection from Stormont. The Department of Health did not comment when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph on November 9. But members of the public were more forthcoming.
Siofra Healy, the hospice’s fundraising director, said: “We have been inundated with messages of support. Within 24 hours of the Tele article we got over 600 people getting in touch.”
She added: “The Belfast Telegraph last week went the extra mile. They took the brave step with us of running this as a front page story and inside, giving us the opportunity to tell a story we have not been able to tell before.
“It was a platform we would have only wished for (until now). Without a doubt, if it had not been for the Belfast Telegraph we would have been spending at least a few more months raising a profile. The story was so hard-hitting.”
Goodbye damp and rot ... hello homely haven
For the past number of years patients at Somerton House have been living with one shower to cater for 18 seriously ill people.
One toilet, for more than 70 relatives at any one time, was surrounded by walls and ceilings riddled with damp and, in one area, rot.
With construction work due to commence in the spring of next year, it is hoped that the new facility will be in place by 2014.
The haven Northern Ireland Hospice envisions is a whole other world from facilities at Somerton House.
It will be a home from home — and a very deliberate departure from hospital’s clinical surroundings.
Patients in the new hospice will have their own en suite rooms, extending out into a private patio and garden.
The family areas in the inpatient unit open into a sculptural garden which provides a space to relax, for children to play and for quiet reflection.
This will be located close to a sanctuary space, overlooking an internal courtyard garden.
Even the glass in patients’ rooms will be non-reflective to avoid reflections after dark.
Nursing stations will be provided at each end of the new building, with essential clinical facilities placed discreetly off the circulation route.