The emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry is to close on Saturday, a former health minister has said.
DUP MLA Jim Wells said he has been informed by a health service employee that they have been told the unit will shut on Saturday, however the claim has been denied by health officials.
A spokesman from the Southern Trust has said a number of different options are currently being considered regarding the best way to provide treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, he said a final decision on contingency plans, which may include the closure of the A&E at Daisy Hill, has not been made.
“It is likely to happen in the next couple of days and when a decision is made, it will be announced,” he added.
Mr Wells said he was contacted by a “reliable source” on Wednesday who informed him that bosses at the Southern Trust have told staff the emergency department will close its doors on Saturday.
All emergency care will be provided at the casualty unit at Craigavon Area Hospital instead, it has been claimed.
The DUP MLA said while he appreciates services are being restructured in the face of the biggest threat to the NHS in its history, he is concerned the closure of Daisy Hill’s ED will become permanent.
“It is almost certain the current coronavirus crisis will be given as the reason for this decision and there will no doubt be assurances that this is a 'temporary' arrangement which will ‘be kept under review',” he said.
“The people of Newry and Mourne will fear that once this crucial service leaves Daisy Hill, it will never return.
“Similar 'temporary' arrangements were implemented at Belfast City and Lagan Valley hospitals eight years ago and there has never been the slightest suggestion that the A&Es will ever return to either site.
“Normally such a major reduction in the service available at a hospital would be the subject of a lengthy public consultation, but the Southern Trust is aware that the sweeping powers given to Government to deal with coronavirus means that this does not need to happen in this case.
“The Trust also knows that public meetings and rallies to protest against the decision cannot be held in the present crisis.”
A health service source described Mr Wells’ comments as “deeply irresponsible”.
They added: “It is extremely unhelpful to suggest that this is part of a hidden agenda to do anything other than try to save lives and protect the health service.”
Health Minister Robin Swann has said in recent days that sweeping and unprecedented changes to the way services are delivered will be made in the coming days and weeks.
Thousands of retired doctors and nurses are being asked to return to hospitals across Northern Ireland to help cope with a surge in seriously ill patients.
Visitors are being banned from hospitals, countless elective surgeries and outpatient appointments are being cancelled, and hospital doctors are being diverted from their normal duties to care for patients in Covid-19 wards.
Meanwhile, specialist community centres are being set up to provide care to Covid-19 patients in a bid to ease the pressure on stressed GP surgeries struggling to cope with demand.