Heart surgery future 'big decision'
Any decision on the future of children's heart surgery in Northern Ireland will not be taken lightly, the new health minister has vowed.
Jim Wells plans to hold urgent meetings with parents, campaigners and medics after a team of international experts recommended the service be moved from Belfast to Dublin.
"This is a big decision and it is not going to be taken lightly," he said.
The MLA for South Down has been in the job for less than 24 hours having been handed the health portfolio in a surprise reshuffle of the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) executive team last night.
An hour before being axed, former health minister Edwin Poots told the Assembly a team of US experts had concluded there were insufficient patients to sustain a two-centre cardiac surgery and interventional cardiology service in both Dublin and Belfast.
The report, which was due to be published in June, has not yet been released.
Mr Wells added: "That report is on the minister's desk and deciding on whether it should move to Dublin is something I will have to visit immediately.
"I know that there are groups which feel very strongly on this issue. I met them as vice chair of the health committee but I need to meet them as minister."
Although he insisted he had "no baggage" around sharing services with counterparts in the Republic, Mr Wells remained tight-lipped about his final decision.
"The ultimate decision will be what is best for the children who are very ill," he said.
Congenital heart conditions are rare, particularly given Northern Ireland's much smaller population. Doctors in Great Britain see between 300 and 500 cases a year compared with the 60 surgeries in Belfast last year, which can raise problems for doctors maintaining their skills through regular work.
Sharing resources and workloads between the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Belfast and Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, Dublin would increase the number of potential patients and make a specialist service on the island sustainable.
However, hundreds of families have campaigned against the move amid fears it could lead to centralisation of treatment in Dublin, entailing additional travel.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann, whose one-and-a-half-year-old son Evan underwent surgery for heart problems in England and had follow-up treatment at the RVH has questioned the timing of yesterday's disclosure.
Mr Swann, who is chair of Stormont's all party group on congenital heart disease also said there were many questions still to be answered.
He said: "I still believe the case for retaining the service in Belfast is clear, as are the potential consequences of it moving to a Dublin only service. There are many towns such as Ballymena [Co Antrim] in my own constituency which are a very significant distance from Dublin. In many cases the time it takes for a child to arrive at the hospital is absolutely key."
Meanwhile, balancing the books in the face of a £140 million shortfall and implementing the Transforming Your Care plan to modernise the health service were also included in the new minister's list of priorities.
Mr Wells, who studied to become an accountant, said he would be "bidding strongly" for additional funds when the Executive reassess budgets in the October monitoring round.
"We need extra money. We do need to bring the gap between having a decent service which is fit for purpose and balancing the books," he said.
Mr Wells also paid tribute to his predecessor describing him as a "miracle worker".
However, the veteran politician declined to comment on Edwin Poots' controversial remarks which suggested that DUP leader Peter Robinson intended to step down.
"I do not want to comment on an internal party matter. I have enormous respect for both men," he said.