MIU CAMPAIGNERS LAUNCH BID FOR DIGITAL REVIEW

A JUDICIAL review into health chiefs’ moves to axe two hospital units has been filed – as the closures inch ever nearer.

Last week, this newspaper revealed that heads of the local health trust are already eyeing a closure date in early September for Minor Injuries Units (MIUs) at Bangor and Ards hospitals.

That’s even though the final verdict from the top of Northern Ireland’s health service isn’t yet in.

Now campaigners aiming to save the units have lodged a bid to hold a judicial review into the process that resulted in the South Eastern Health Trust’s decision to axe them both.

One of the people behind the bid, North Down MLA Alex Easton, revealed that over the past few weeks campaigners have been busy preparing the challenge with Belfast-based legal firm Phoenix Law.

And although Health Department permanent secretary Peter May is expected to issue his final verdict on the closure move in the near future, Mr Easton hopes that the review will force a stay of execution until a court case can be heard.

“This ludicrous decision from the health trust takes important care facilities away from the people of North Down and Strangford,” the MLA said.

“We believe we have a strong case that the public consultation by the South Eastern Trust was fatally flawed and will argue that case in court.

“Our judicial review should put a halt to the process of closure until the case is heard.

“The closures are all about saving money, not the best care for patients.

“The Trust’s decision had very little political support, except for the Alliance Party who unfortunately gave them political cover, and it certainly has no support throughout the community.”

Meanwhile UUP MLA Alan Chambers, his party’s health spokesman, penned an open letter to Mr May calling on him to back off from making a decision until Stormont returns and a minister can consider the issue instead.

“The current proposals are being made at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons,” wrote Mr Chambers.

“The process from the start has been a poor example of public relations on the part of the Trust. It is not too late to postpone these plans for further reflection.”

Mr Chambers also pointed to the views of the most recent Health Minister, fellow Ulster Unionist Robin Swann, and urged the permanent secretary to be steered by them.

“In March 2022, he openly promoted the concept of Urgent Care Centres,” stated the MLA, “[but] went on to say that such Urgent Care Centres should not be used to replace existing MIUs.

“This comment is one that many people involved in this issue appear to be happy to ignore.

“I would have thought that this one sentence from the Minister should provide sufficient cover to postpone the proposed closure of the Ards and Bangor MIUs until a new minister is in post. To do otherwise might be seen as taking what would be a controversial political decision.”

The Trust wants to close the Bangor and Ards MIUs in order to open a unit with expanded opening hours in the Ulster Hospital, with long-term ambitions to then replace that facility with a new Urgent Care Centre in Dundonald.

The plan is to shut both Bangor and Ards MIUs for good this year, with the £4m Urgent Care facility to follow in 2025.

The Bangor unit was shuttered when Covid hit; said at the time to be a temporary measure, throughout this year’s closure bid that temporary move has been treated as a de facto permanent one.

Meanwhile the Ards MIU has been operating on reduced hours – though recent figures showed that over the past five years it consistently got a perfect score on government waiting targets, making it the best performing emergency care unit in the South Eastern Trust area.

At the end of June, the Trust’s board unanimously voted to axe both MIUs in favour of the new Dundonald facility, despite receiving a 19,000-strong petition against the move and more than 80% of people who responded to an official public consultation being opposed to it.