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Saving money shouldn’t be at expense of lives

I grew up in a small place, west of the Bann, where from an early age I realised that “access to services” (as they call it up at Stormont) generally involved long journeys in sometimes difficult and dodgy conditions.

You accept, for example, that if you or a member of your family requires medical attention — even urgent medical attention — there may be that much more of a wait than there would be in the city.

But you pay your taxes in the country too. Exactly the same taxes as they do in the city.

So you should be confident, you would think, that access to your local health services should be reasonably convenient, not least because the further a sick or injured patient has to travel, the greater the risk.

And OK, so money has to be saved. But within the health service — you would like to think — this should not be the priority over saving life.

But that’s exactly how it appears following the closure of the A&E departments in the Mid Ulster and Whiteabbey hospitals, with those services transferred to the Antrim hospital and the Causeway hospital in Coleraine.

On paper this might seem to represent a cash saving. On a departmental map it might seem a reasonable option in transportation terms.

But as anybody who lives in, say, Cookstown will tell you, there are over 25 miles of sometimes twisting, rural roads before you even get near the motorway. Imagine that in the winter.

Imagine your young child falling suddenly, catastrophically ill when you are far from services. The new “minor injuries” departments in both the Mid Ulster and the Whiteabbey will not cater for children under the age of five.

Imagine how fearful elderly people will be that medical help might not reach them in time. There’s also the question of ambulance cover. Will there be adequate cover particularly in the winter time when even one journey can take so long?

Imagine too what would happen if there was some sort of major incident.

The Northern Ireland branch of the BMA (no less) is deeply concerned that the closures have been rushed through and that the Antrim hospital — already under immense pressure — will not be able to cope.

Sammy Wilson from the DUP talks about medical staff there being “at their wits’ end”. Unions are horrified at the implications.

All patients using the Antrim and Causeway hospitals will be affected by the additional workload landed on staff there.

People get very emotional about cuts to their local hospital services for very good reason. This really is a matter of life and death.

In my own family we have enduring cause to be grateful to the staff at the Mid Ulster. I remember the gentle care they gave my sister who died in the hospital when she was just 17.

She couldn’t be saved. But other close family members owe their lives entirely to the attention they received there.

What would have happened if they had had to be ferried to Antrim or Coleraine? I can think of at least two instances involving members of my immediate family when they just would not have made it.

And I am sure the memory of similar examples haunt the thoughts of so many other families who live in that area.

These sudden, imposed health service cuts are shameful, they are dangerous and they are deeply, deeply unfair.

That they will save money is debatable. That they will cost lives is almost certainly guaranteed.

Belfast Telegraph