Northern Ireland air ambulance gets commitment from Health Minister Simon Hamilton
Health Minister Simon Hamilton has given his commitment to an air ambulance service for Northern Ireland.
A petition with more than 70,000 signatures backing the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (Hems) - which the late Dr John Hinds had passionately called for before his death - was due to be handed over on Tuesday.
However Mr Hamilton has now said he is committed to establishing a HEMS.
The Health Minister said: "I believe that the time is right to transform our major trauma services with the development of the new Critical Care Building at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the supportive public debate on the need for a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service providing the opportunity for this.”
"The estimated cost for a HEMS is £2.38m for initial infrastructure and £1.8m annual recurrent operating costs,” Mr Hamilton said.
“Given the difficult financial climate for the health service with many competing priorities for funding, we will need to establish if it is possible to secure a robust and recurrent charitable funding contribution for this service.
“I therefore welcome the recent approaches from potential charitable sources who potentially could raise funds and provide other support.”
SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney has welcomed the health minister's announcement
He said: “Today’s announcement reflects the chorus of voices that have called on the Health Minister to establish an air ambulance service for the people of the north that will end the cruel inequality which sees patients here denied timely and life-saving treatment.
“We have seen Britain and the Republic make great strides in investing in air ambulance services and bolstering their trauma networks. But in the North, successive Health Ministers have dragged their heels. This is despite an Air Ambulance feasibility study estimating that 1650 to 2200 patients would benefit– which included around 550 major trauma patients.
“The establishment of a Trauma network is also welcomed with the Royal Victoria Hospital trauma centre playing a pivotal role. Considering the delays and significant costs incurred in developing the new trauma centre, we need assurances that the building is now fit for purpose - this includes the helipad, ventilation and elevator space.
“The public has had its say following the tragic death of Dr John Hinds who was an avid campaigner for an Air Ambulance Service - an online petition to establish an air ambulance in the North has reached almost 65,000 signatures.
“It is now vital that Simon Hamilton as Health Minister listens to the public and that he delivers an Air Ambulance service for the North. I would invite all those concerned to respond to the Departments consultation when it’s launched.
Dr Hinds saved the lives of many motorcycle riders but tragically lost his own life during a practice session in Co Dublin on July 3.
Known as the "flying doctor", the emergency medicine specialist worked in Craigavon Area Hospital but was widely known and respected throughout the road-racing fraternity for his love of the sport and his dedication to protecting lives.
However, while the need for Northern Ireland to have its own dedicated air ambulance service is generally accepted by the Assembly, it could be between three to five years before it becomes a reality here.
TUV leader Jim Allister told the Belfast Telegraph that it could take up to £2m to buy a new fully-fitted emergency medical helicopter and a similar amount each year to run it.
He first came across Dr Hinds earlier this year after it emerged that injured North West 200 spectator Violet McAfee's life was saved thanks to Dr Hinds' on-the-spot treatment and the fact that a medical helicopter was used to take her to hospital in Belfast.
But the helicopter came from Sligo on loan from the Irish government, as opposed to the region's own service which every devolved region in the UK has apart from Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister said: "My interest in learning about why we didn't have our own air ambulance service was piqued after that and it developed from there.
"Dr Hinds contacted me and briefed me and I brought him to Stormont where he met with others and you couldn't help but be impressed by his professionalism and dedication to saving lives. It was absolutely heart-breaking to hear that he had died in an accident. You only had to meet him once to realise what a talent he was," he said.
"Establishing an air ambulance service would be a nice legacy to the family for his dedication."
A consultation will go now go ahead later in September to gauge public opinion on how the service should work.
Mr Hamilton said: "The key issues include: service configuration; target patient groups; home base location; and funding models.
“I will launch the public consultation document later this month and would ask everyone with an interest in HEMS to respond with their views.”
He added: “I want to pay tribute to all of our trauma clinicians, nurses, paramedics and support staff for the exemplary service that they provide in striving to save lives.
“My mission is to support and enable them to continue their sterling work and I look forward to the delivery of these enhanced services in the months ahead.”