Close Muckamore, says top medic as numbers plummet
Patient numbers at Muckamore Abbey Hospital have "significantly reduced" following allegations of abuse, health officials have said.
It comes after the author of a review into the Antrim hospital that found a series of "catastrophic failings" said she is disappointed that it remains open.
Dr Margaret Flynn reviewed the protection of vulnerable adult patients at Muckamore between 2012 and 2017 and found that many lives were "compromised", while there was also "a culture of tolerating harm".
Dr Flynn told the BBC that while some aspects of care have improved, the hospital needs to close.
"It should not have survived the headwinds of closure programmes that happened elsewhere in the UK, but it did survive and we live with the consequences of that," she said.
"I can guarantee that if you visited maternity wards and nurseries in Northern Ireland and you met with the parents of little ones with learning disabilities and autism and asked them what their aspirations were for their youngsters, they would not cite Muckamore."
Dr Flynn said patients were "let down", and while it was tempting to finger-point, the "bigger system" needs attention.
A further five Muckamore staff members have been suspended, which brings the total to 33. The Belfast Health Trust has offered its "sincere apologies" to patients and families affected and said staff behaviour "fell significantly below professional standards".
The Department of Health said the priority remains the safety and stability of care provided at Muckamore.
"Suspensions clearly contribute to the challenge of maintaining required staffing levels," it said.
"However, it should also be emphasised that the patient population at Muckamore has been significantly reduced over the past year.
"This has helped mitigate staffing pressures to a degree."
The department admitted it was a difficult and challenging time for everyone involved with Muckamore.
It said that it was "firmly committed" to reducing lengthy hospital admissions by providing additional support for people to live sustainably in local communities.
"The reshaping of services will cover different aspects of care, including: inpatient assessment and treatment of patients with learning disabilities; respite care; outreach work to support community placements, and provision in circumstances where placements might break down," it added.
"Identifying the best long-term location or locations for inpatient and respite care will form part of this work.
"The best interest of patients and their families will be the paramount consideration at all times."
Police are investigating allegations about the physical and mental abuse of patients.
CCTV footage has revealed 1,500 crimes on one ward, officers said.