A date must be set for the resumption of emergency services at Daisy Hill Hospital, a former health minister has said.
The Newry hospital site's emergency department was relocated to Craigavon Area Hospital as part of a region-wide restructuring of health services to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
Despite assurances made by the Southern Trust yesterday that it will be reopening access to emergency medicine at Daisy Hill when "it is safe to do so", Jim Wells said he feared its relocation to Craigavon hospital is permanent.
"The chief executive [of the Southern Trust] should set a target date for the return of Accident and Emergency to Daisy Hill," he said.
"This should be based on the date when the coronavirus ward closes in Craigavon Area Hospital.
"The Accident and Emergency should reopen in Newry within two weeks of that happening."
Mr Wells said that while he welcomed the trust's statement that emergency services would return to Daisy Hill, he said the local community deserves more "certainty" from both the trust and the Department of Health.
"The department has made no secret of the fact that it wants to consolidate services into the big hospitals," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We're coming out of the Covid hospital crisis. I think there are around 30 patients left in hospital as the result of Covid, which is great news and the hospitals have worked hard to get on top of it." The South Down MLA added: "The battle's now in the care homes rather in the hospitals. Therefore we should start to see services move back."
Stressing that with efforts now under way for the gradual return of services for non-Covid patients, there was nothing preventing either the trust or department from revealing a timeline.
"Therefore, that being the case, you [would expect an] announcement by now saying it could be back in Newry by September, or at some other point," he explained.
"They moved [the emergency services] in three days, so it shouldn't take them long moving it back.
"I do worry if this drags on, the cover of the crisis will be used to announce that there isn't going to be a return of services."
However, Shane Devlin, the Southern Trust's chief executive, insisted that emergency services will return to Daisy Hill, but it will be a "complex and challenging process". "We will be reopening access to emergency medicine in Daisy Hill Hospital, but the issue is timing," he said.
We need to be assured that it is safe to do so. Covid-19 is still a significant and serious issue for health and social care ... As part of a regional approach we are urgently reviewing our services to see how we can rebuild safe care given the fundamental change in how society is currently affected."
Mr Devlin added: "We are developing plans to rebuild services but Covid-19 remains a threat and this limits what we can do in our hospitals.
"We recognise that the Newry and Mourne community are anxious for the return of their urgent and emergency care services and we are working on how this can be safely provided, both for patients and staff.
"This will be a complex and challenging process."
The Department of Health had not responded to a request for comment at the time of going to press.