Public consultation on Dalriada Hospital MS unit closure branded 'a farce'
A public consultation on the temporary closure of a Dalriada Hospital unit has been branded "a farce" after it emerged no new admissions to the unit will take place during the process.
Health Minister Jim Wells told the Assembly the eight-week consultation will run until the end of January during a motion which called for him to reverse the decision to shut the unit.
Dalriada Hospital includes a respite unit in Ballycastle for multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers.
Mr Wells said he is taking the process "very seriously".
But he faced a cross-party backlash from MLAs, with Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin describing the move as "in effect, closure in another form".
A second consultation on full closure will follow in March.
At the end of October the Northern Trust announced the MS unit would close from the end of November until March, as part of health service budget cuts.
The MS unit is Northern Ireland's only dedicated respite centre. More than 4,000 people in Northern Ireland are affected by MS, one of the highest rates in the world.
The decision to close the unit has sparked massive public outcry, with numerous protests demanding the minister reverses the decision.
Currently seven patients are in the intermediate care ward while two people are being cared for in the MS respite unit.
Mr Wells said: "I am very aware of the public's dissatisfaction that patients and clients have not had an opportunity to participate in a formal consultation process on these proposals. I cannot stress enough that we also need to ensure patient safety."
MS Society director Patricia Gordon said the decision to proceed with the temporary closure was disappointing.
"The public consultation, while welcome, will come too late for many local families affected by the proposed closure," she said.
"It is disappointing that at only at this late stage, and only after the public outcry, that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have launched this consultation. On behalf of our members we will be responding to this and outlining the invaluable role of respite for families living with MS."
TUV leader Jim Allister said to make the consultation meaningful the hospital must be allowed to continue in full operation.
"This, Minister Wells has rejected. Thereby he endorses the folly and farce of the original decision by permitting it to still stand."