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Rapid A&E unit closures ‘will create emergency black holes’

The sudden early closure of two accident and emergency units in Northern Ireland could cause major problems for patients as they face a dilemma on where to go for treatment.

A&E services at the Whiteabbey and Mid Ulster Hospitals are to be replaced by minor injury units in just over a week, while inpatient cardiology services will also move to Antrim Area Hospital.

The changes, which will come into force on May 24, essentially mean people living in Magherafelt, Maghera and Newtownabbey will have to decide whether they should travel to one of the minor injury units or the acute emergency medicine unit at Antrim Area Hospital.

The announcement has been met with anger by politicians and unions who have expressed concern that Antrim Area Hospital will not be able to cope with the additional demand.

The British Medical Association, a leading doctors’ union, expressed concern at the speed at which the changes are to be implemented and called for consultation on the matter.

Unions Unison and Unite have also condemned the pace of the changes, with Unite members due to meet today to discuss possible action to oppose the move.

Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness, who is also to raise the issue with the Health Minister, said the changes will create black holes in emergency cover in some parts of his constituency. East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: “Almost on a weekly basis I receive complaints about the inability of Antrim hospital to deal with the volume of work that comes its way — with people lying on trolleys for up to two days and staff telling me they don’t have enough blankets and pillows for everyone.

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“Not only are the public at their wits’ end, but the staff are also, as it is they who have to face the brunt of public anger. The closure of Whiteabbey and Mid Ulster hospitals will only increase the pressure and frustration felt by patients and staff at Antrim.”

But hospital bosses have insisted the changes are being pushed through earlier than expected to ensure the safety of patients.

Dr Olivia Dornan, a consultant in emergency medicine and clinical director for medicine and emergency medicine in the Northern Trust, defended the move and said it will improve patient care.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, she said the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) meant there are not enough junior doctors to work at both Mid Ulster and Whiteabbey Hospitals so the decision was taken to bring forward the centralisation.

“This was a clinical decision which was made a while ago. We have been planning for it and it will make the service better throughout,” she said.

The Northern Trust said it has put in place measures to increase capacity at Antrim Area Hospital on an interim basis — equating to an additional 20 medical beds — until a planned major extension and refurbishment is completed.

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