Closure of seven private care homes halts plans to shut state-run facilities
Proposals to close state-run care homes in Northern Ireland have been halted in the wake of an announcement that seven private sector homes are to shut.
Stormont Health Minister Simon Hamilton said it was right to "pause and reflect" on the future of statutory facilities following the move by Four Seasons to close seven of its 69 homes in the region.
A total of 254 care home residents and 393 staff face an uncertain future after the UK's largest private care home company said the homes were no longer viable.
Mr Hamilton said "priority" would be given to the process of transitioning residents to other care settings. Four Seasons said it hoped many nurses and other care staff could be re-employed in its 62 remaining homes in the region.
Northern Ireland's five health trusts had been asked by the central Health and Social Care Board to assess statutory provision in their area and make proposals around potential closures to Mr Hamilton.
The minister said no proposals had yet reached his desk for final decision.
But he added: "I have become increasingly concerned about a range of pressures facing the independent sector and particular problems facing one of the largest independent providers of residential care in Northern Ireland.
"I have been keeping developments under constant review and as a consequence of these growing concerns and confirmation today that Four Seasons Health Care will close seven homes across Northern Ireland, I am asking the Health and Social Care Board to halt and review the proposed closures of Statutory Residential Care Homes.
"Given that many of the proposals are predicated on spare local capacity in the independent sector, it is only right and proper to pause, reflect and give careful consideration to issues arising in the independent sector."
He added: "The continued wellbeing of residents will be the priority in dealing with any future transition to alternative care arrangements. The intention is to ensure that any relocation will be managed with minimal disruption to them, that they are able to remain as close to the original location as possible and that there will be no additional financial implications created by the move."
The homes closing are Victoria Park and Stormont care homes in Belfast; Antrim care home; Garvagh care home; Donaghcloney care home near Banbridge; Oakridge care home in Ballynahinch and Hamilton Court in Armagh.
The announcement was made 24 hours after Four Seasons reported a pre-tax loss of £25.4 million for the third quarter of the year.
It also came a month after the company announced the closure of its Drumragh care home in Omagh.
Unions Unison and GMB have both voiced concern at the announcement.
Patricia McKeown from Unison said the union would commence "urgent negotiations" with Four Seaons and Northern Ireland's five health trusts.
"The five Health Trusts are the major clients of Four Seasons and many of their decisions on the future of the NHS care home provision were predicated on using the private sector as an alternative provider," she said.
"We have been alerting the board (Health and Social Care Board) and the trusts to financial problems within Four Seasons for some time now. Today's announcement is a clear indicator that residential care for our older population cannot be left to the market. When their care needs are balanced against profit margins, the money wins out every time."
Alan Perry, regional officer with the GMB union, expressed concern.
"I have requested an urgent meeting with the company to discuss this situation facing GMB members and residents in these homes," he said.
A spokesman for Four Seasons Health Care said the closure decisions were "difficult but unavoidable". He cited a number of factors, including a lack of permanent nursing staff.
"The principal reason behind this decision is that each of these homes is operating at a loss and they are no longer viable," he said.
"The fee income that the homes receive is below the cost of the care they are providing and we have effectively been paying a subsidy for them to continue to provide care. We regret that we cannot continue to sustain this position.
"Additionally, the national shortage of nurses means it has been difficult to recruit and retain permanent staff of the right calibre. This leaves the homes reliant on temporary agency nurses in order to maintain staffing levels, that carries a high cost and presents challenges in maintaining the quality of care we expect to provide.
"The wellbeing of the residents is our priority and the homes will continue to provide care while we allow plenty of time for them and their families to be supported to find suitable alternative placements. We will do everything we can to ensure there is no disruption to their care during this time."