Minister forced to step in as Northern Ireland care home closures branded a crisis
Stormont plans for the future care of the elderly across Northern Ireland lie in tatters today after it emerged seven privately-run care homes are to close.
Efforts are now under way to find new homes for more than 250 elderly and vulnerable residents of the Four Seasons Health Care homes earmarked for closure.
The situation has been branded a crisis by unions, healthcare experts and politicians.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton has been forced to halt controversial proposals to close 10 statutory run care homes across Northern Ireland as it was claimed that more privately-run facilities may shut their doors.
"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," he said.
"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."
However, he had last night made no decision on whether he will lift the 'no admissions' policy from all statutory care homes in Northern Ireland.
SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney said: "I think the minister's hand may be forced on this issue.
"The Government cannot act quickly to address the issues that have resulted in this situation but it must act quickly to ensure new places are found for the people affected by these closures.
"He may have to lift the ban on admissions to ensure there are sufficient places available."
Mr McKinney said the current situation has arisen as a result of underfunding of the sector by three successive DUP health ministers.
He warned that he has been told by other private providers of residential and domiciliary care that they may have to close too because they are not being paid enough to provide the service.
"This is just another example of the failure of the DUP to run things well," he said.
DUP MP Gavin Robinson said it is vital that residents and their families and employees are informed of all developments.
"The uncertainty caused by this announcement must not be compounded by a lack of communication between the company and those affected," he said.
Unions have also expressed concerns about the situation.
Unison aims to hold urgent meetings with the health trusts to discuss yesterday's developments.
Patricia McKeown, Unison regional organiser, said the announcement of the closures 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," she said.
Kevin McAdam from Unite said almost 400 healthcare staff now face redundancy in the weeks running up to Christmas, while he said it is crucial the impact on affected residents will be minimal.
"We welcome the decision by the minister to review the proposed closure of 12 statutory residential homes in the context of this announcement," he said.
"Unite has long maintained the Health Department should place greater reliance on the statutory care provision sector and we hope that this will mean a wider strategic reorientation away from private sector provision."