Simon Hamilton rejects Stormont jibes over care home provision
Stormont's Health minister has denied being asleep at the wheel over care home provision in Northern Ireland.
Simon Hamilton rejected criticism during an Assembly debate about the recent announcement that seven privately run homes in the region are to close.
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle tabled the urgent oral question on the closures by Four Seasons - the UK's largest care home operator.
Mr Lyttle said a range of problems impacting the sector, including rising costs and a lack of trained nursing staff, should have warned the minister of an impending crisis.
"Should we conclude that the minister has been caught asleep at the wheel on this issue?" he asked MLAs.
Mr Hamilton responded in strong terms, insisting pointing blame in his direction was "baseless".
He also expressed hope that other operators could move into the care home sector in Northern Ireland to address the shortfall left by Four Seasons' move.
"I think it's disappointing that the member in his opening comments chose to make a baseless political attack on me and it's absolutely disgraceful that on such an important issue that the member would seek to do that without any justification whatsoever," he said.
A total of 254 care home residents and 393 staff face an uncertain future after Four Seasons said the seven homes were no longer viable. The company will continue to operate 62 other homes in Northern Ireland.
In the wake of last week's announcement, Mr Hamilton halted proposals to close a number of state-run homes.
The minister said closures by Four Seasons were triggered by specific financial problems being experienced by that company - and were not down to any inaction on his part.
But he said he was confident other care home providers would increase their presence in Northern Ireland.
"Whilst there has been a particular issue with this provider and its viability there are others out there who are expressing an interest in these seven homes and are indeed expressing an interest in coming into the Northern Ireland market as a whole," he said.