Health minister accused on MS unit
Northern Ireland's health minister has been accused of "fudging" a decision to shut the region's only multiple sclerosis respite unit.
The criticism comes after Jim Wells announced an eight-week consultation on the future of the under-threat Co Antrim facility.
The DUP MLA told the Assembly: "We have four months before the end of March next year and in view of the widespread concern, my department will be instructing the Northern Trust to immediately begin an eight weeks public consultation on this temporary closure to see whether there are alternative viable proposals that could be put in place to allow the services to re-open before the end of March."
The 12-bed respite unit at Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, is set to close until March as part of a raft of money-saving measures proposed by the Department of Health.
The decision has sparked widespread public anger with huge protests on a weekly basis in the seaside resort.
More than 4,000 people are affected by MS in Northern Ireland - the highest rates in the UK.
Patricia Gordon, director of the MS Society, said members were "disappointed and surprised" that the closure was going ahead.
She said: "The Regional Multiple Sclerosis Respite Centre in Ballycastle currently provides respite care for people affected by MS from throughout Northern Ireland and we are very concerned that people will be unable to access appropriate respite during this temporary closure period.
"The public consultation, while welcome, will come too late for many local families affected by the proposed closure. It is disappointing that only at this late stage, and only after the public outcry, that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have launched this consultation."
Thousands of people, including doctors, nurses and patients have taken to the streets to back the "Save the Dal" campaign. MLAs from across the political divide have also pledged their support for the hospital.
North Antrim MLA Jim Allister said :"I am disappointed Minister Wells has gone for a fudge on Dalriada hospital. While he concedes a consultation, it is in the context of no new admissions. Thereby, the 'Dal' will continue to be run down, while the motions of consultation are gone through.
"The belated establishment of a consultation itself confirms the untenable nature of the original decision. But, to make the consultation meaningful the hospital must be allowed to continue in full operation."
The SDLP also launched a scathing attack accusing the health minister of trying to "manage" the public outcry.
The party's health spokesman, Fearghal McKinney said: "It will be clear for everyone to see that the health minister's announcement of an eight week delay to the closure of Dalriada hospital while a consultation takes place is nothing more than a tokenistic attempt to manage the huge public backlash.
"The minister has made it clear that there will be no new admissions during this period. That means that Dalriada is still on the wind down. The campaigners, doctors, nurses, patients and carers will see this for exactly what it is. It is a stay of execution rather than any sincere attempt to reverse the decision."
Donal Cunningham, chairman of Moyle District Council, said he was "furious" the hospital was not being kept open during the consultation.
He said: "It is absolutely ludicrous that a consultation is to be carried out during a period of closure.
"We have presented ample evidence of how Dalriada Hospital contributes to the efficiency of the acute hospital sector and how it provides a major service to MS patients.
"I am very disappointed by this decision at a time when the minister needed to be standing up to the management of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust."