FEARS are running high that health bosses could try to axe Minor Injuries Units in either Ards or Bangor.

This week the South Eastern Health Trust announced that it is planning to launch a massive public consultation on the future of emergency care in this area. The Trust didn’t include any details about what it will actually be consulting on, stating that proper information won’t be available until after the Trust’s board holds a formal vote on running the consultation a fortnight from now. But local politicians are worried that it could mean the start of plans to close down minor injuries facilities in either Ards Hospital or Bangor Hospital. Bangor Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) was temporarily closed during the Covid pandemic – but has never reopened.

Ards MIU currently runs from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, staying closed on evenings and weekends. Several years ago the Trust tried to axe Bangor MIU in a costcutting measure, though the move was eventually stopped by the then Health Minister after a huge public outcry, With the Trust’s new mystery consultation looming, several politicians fear that MIU cuts are now back on the menu.

Strangford MP Jim Shannon warned local people to be ‘vigilant and ready’ for the consultation, stating that the Trust’s announcement of a new consultation ‘certainly raises concern as to whether proposals are to enhance emergency care for the Ards and North Down area, or otherwise’. Said Mr Shannon: “Oftentimes, consultation processes pass by without people being aware [of them] and therefore their voices aren’t heard. We need to ensure that this isn’t the case and that the people of the area express their needs very clearly. “Whilst we want to see improved outcomes and acknowledge the need for structural changes, this must enhance provision, not diminish it. “This consultation will be very important and should be a priority for response from every resident in this area. “My colleagues and I will be working closely together to secure enhanced services and not reductions in service.”

His DUP colleague, Strangford MLA Michelle McIlveen, said the lack of any real information about the Trust’s future plans is creating ‘uncertainty and concern’ among locals. “This was unnecessary in the current circumstances,” she said. “Given the pressures on A&E in the Ulster Hospital, it would be much wiser to bolster services at the Minor Injuries Unit and the out of hours GP service at Ards Hospital. “Any reduction in those services would be a retrograde step that would put further pressure on Accident and Emergency. “I would be totally opposed to any cut in these services and I await the Trust’s consultation.”

Strangford Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said that with a little investment, Ards Hospital could do more to help take pressure off the Ulster Hospital – but the Trust’s vague statement had left him questioning whether cuts could be on the horizon. Stated Mr Nesbitt: “As former Health Minister Robin Swann said, we need every square metre of the NHS estate. “I have sought an urgent meeting with the Trust’s chief executive and will be seeking clarity regarding their vision of the future of Ards Hospital. “I am also concerned that should the Trust’s board give a green light in a fortnight’s time, this consultation could take place in the mouth of elections to our local councils, and possibly the Assembly as well. “The last thing anyone needs is for this issue to become a political football.”

However North Down MP Stephen Farry urged locals not to prejudge the consultation, stating that people need to keep ‘an open mind on the way forward’ when the Trust finally does publish more information about its plans. “At present, local GPs are overwhelmed and the Emergency Department at the Ulster Hospital is under extreme pressure,” he said. “Modernisation and change must be considered. “The benchmark for assessing any new way forward for urgent and emergency care must be based around improved levels of service for patients, improved health outcomes and for staff.”

Trust chief executive Roisin Coulter said: “Being able to provide safe and sustainable urgent and emergency care services continues to be immensely challenging. Increasing demand, an ageing population and ongoing staffing pressures are also having a significant impact. “Our aim in consulting with key partners and the public is to ensure that people fully understand the need for change, the various options and their implications. It is important they have a real and meaningful chance to have their say.”