Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Assembly member and Chairman of the Stormont Committee for Employment and Learning, has called on DUP health minister Jim Wells to “reverse the ridiculous decision to close Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle and declare that the facility will remain open for the needs of the people”.
Assemblyman Swann, who is UUP Chief Whip, issued his challenge to the minister during questions in the Stormont Chamber on the Ballycastle hospital.
Mr Swann had asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety whether he will intervene to reverse the decision to remove multiple sclerosis respite services provided at Dalriada Hospital.
Responding to Mr Swann, the Minister stated: “In my statement of 30 October 2014, I said that my priorities were to ensure that services provided by the health and social care sector were safe and effective and to ensure that my Department achieved financial balance, as is required of all Ministers.
“To achieve those aims, health and social care trusts have produced a range of contingency proposals. Indeed, we debated those earlier. Each trust has provided me with an assurance that its services will remain safe and effective.
“As part of its contingency plans, the Northern Trust has proposed the temporary closure of respite beds in the Dalriada Hospital for sufferers of multiple sclerosis. I regret that the trust has had to take that action as a consequence of the budget pressures.
“However, it will simply not be possible to maintain the current levels of service provision in the absence of the entire funding required of an extra £130 million. The Northern Trust has affirmed that it will endeavour to minimise the impact on front-line patient care.
“Respite services to MS patients will still be provided and everybody who requires respite will receive it. The trust will be working with everyone involved to ensure that service users’ needs are central to the process moving forward.
“Furthermore, the trust has also provided an assurance that anyone who has been booked in to respite care in November will have no change to that booking. My Department will monitor the situation closely over the coming months to ensure that the service provided to MS sufferers in the Northern Trust continues to meet the local population’s needs,” the Minister told Mr Swann.
However, Mr Swann responded by pressing the Minister: “It is unfortunate that he did not actually answer the question that was originally put to him, and in the supplementary I will ask whether he will intervene to reverse the decision to remove the multiple sclerosis respite services that are provided at Dalriada Hospital.
“That was the question. It was not about trusts or the provision elsewhere. The Minister should do us the decency of answering that section of the question,” Mr Swann challenged Minister Wells.
The minister was forced to state: “When I was a Back-Bencher, I found it very annoying when the Minister did not answer the question. So, if I am guilty of that, you are absolutely right to point it out. I think that as a Member for North Antrim who has been lobbying on this issue, he has to face up to some very difficult statistics.
“In 2013-14, the total number of bed days available at the Dalriada was 4,380. Of those, only 1,402 were used. That equates to a bed occupancy of 32% or an average of four beds occupied at a given time. That is a very stark statistic that shows that we are funding a lot of empty capacity there.
“Secondly, there are 4,000 MS sufferers in Northern Ireland. I am acutely aware of the difficulty of that long-term condition. However, only 57 from the Northern Trust, two from the Belfast Trust and 10 from the Western Trust used the Dalriada respite care.
“That is 69 sufferers out of 4,000. Therefore, the trend of users was, unfortunately, quite negative. Many of those 69 have contacted me to tell me about the excellent care they have received in Ballycastle.
“I accept that, but, given the large number of potential users of that excellent facility, I am surprised that so few have availed themselves of it so far,” Minister Wells told Assemblyman Swann.