The DUP Health Minister is involved in talks with his Dublin counterpart in a bid to find an all-Ireland solution to child heart surgery, the Assembly has been told.
Brushing aside the strong opposition to his plans, Edwin Poots told MLAs he has been in discussions on a cross-border network with the Irish Health Minister James Reilly.
More than 50,000 people have signed a petition demanding the retention of child heart surgery facilities in Belfast. But Mr Poots (right) said he could not ignore the views of eminent health professionals and believed a North-South model would be best for both jurisdictions.
“It is necessary and appropriate that I acknowledge that there is no realistic option that would permit a stand-alone paediatric cardiac surgery in Belfast,” he said.
“That is the relevant experts' clear analysis and the view of the service commissioners. People may not like that and find it hard to accept, but it is a factual situation.”
The DUP minister said he has met Mr Reilly “and discussed our mutual wish to explore fully the potential for a service to be provided on an all-island basis”.
“I think that it is to (the Republic’s) advantage as well as our advantage to come together and have an all-island network for paediatric congenital cardiac care, and I am very happy to look at that,” he said. However, Mr Poots could give no guarantees that agreement could be in place in six months.
“If it is an all-island service, I want it to be the best service that is available. That is my strong preference at this time. I want to explore fully the all-island solution,” Mr Poots added.
Ulster Unionist John McCallister, a member of the health committee, said there was disappointment that discussions with Dublin are not at a more advanced stage.
“We would also like to hear that keeping some surgery in Belfast is a viable option. Maybe, if the facilities are better there than in Dublin, why should we not look at Belfast being the main hub on an all-island basis? Is that an option?” he asked.
SDLP leader and GP Alasdair McDonnell said he had concerns about how the recommendation for closure of the Belfast-based service came about, as it was largely centred on a two-day visit from a team in England to review paediatric services in the city. The debate came as a public consultation period over services for children needing heart surgery or specialist cardiac care in Northern Ireland started.
The chair of the working group involved in the consultation, Mr Dean Sullivan, said: “The shared objective is to secure future arrangements that provide a high quality, safe, sustainable, accessible and timely service for children from Northern Ireland.”
More than 250 babies are born with congenital heart disease in Northern Ireland annually. Just under half require further medical intervention and often surgery, and around 120 paediatric cardiac operations are conducted each year at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. But earlier this year a UK-wide review found that while the service at the Royal Victoria is safe, it is not sustainable. Around 70 children a year travel regularly to England by air ambulance, many of whom require the most complex paediatric congenital cardiac care.
By Chris Kilpatrick
More than 200 people with congenital heart problems gathered at Stormont to hand over a 12,000-signature petition opposing changes to the surgical care of children with heart defects here.
The crowd of all ages gathered for the ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings on Monday afternoon.
They were voicing their opposition to the announcement by Health Minister Edwin Poots in August that the future of paediatric heart surgery services at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children is under review following a report which claimed they are unsustainable.
The Children's Heartbeat Trust campaign — Hands up for Local Kids’ Heart Surgery — was launched by those strongly against the axing of the services here with a number of public meetings currently taking place across the country.
Parents backing the campaign fear Northern Ireland could be left without the specialised heart services their children need.
Around 100 child heart operations are carried out here annually, which is considered too low to sustain a specialist unit under health service guidelines.
However, parents and former patients argue that Northern Ireland is a special case because of the problems of distance, which must be taken into consideration.
The handing over of the petition to Mr Poots and Sue Ramsey, chair of the Stormont health committee, followed the presentation of a Facebook petition two weeks ago by Derry teenager Eoin Taylor.
Children’s Heartbeat Trust’s Sarah Quinlan, who spoke at the event, said: “Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in Northern Ireland.
“And it is unimaginable that surgery for babies and children here could end.
“Any proposal which would see children forced to fly to England for treatment ignores medical evidence on the risk of transport, fails to meet the required three-hour limit for journey-time to a specialist centre, and jeopardises the right to life for any baby born here with a heart defect.
“The solution is an enhanced service in Belfast as part of an all-Island network with Dublin and continued links with hospitals in Britain.”
And she added: “This will ensure that all babies and children can enjoy the safe and world-class surgery provided at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, as part of an all island surgical network.
“It is imperative that these steps are taken following the consultation to safeguard the health of babies, children, teenagers and adults.”
The remaining public meetings take place at: