ONLY urgent cases will be able to see doctors at Priory and Springhill surgeries while health officials get used to running the practice.

As the South Eastern Health Trust took direct control of the two huge North Down surgeries this week, officials revealed they’ll be running the practice for at least six months. The officials have also confirmed there’s a chance they’ll have to extend their control even longer if they can’t find new GP partners to take over the practice before the end of July. And they’ve already asked locals not to contact the practice for minor illnesses, instead pointing people towards community pharmacies and an online symptoms checker on NI Direct.

Yesterday (Wednesday) the Trust took direct control of the surgeries, which look after more than 14,000 patients on sites in Holywood and Bangor. Officials said they’ll work to bring in enough locum doctors to ‘minimise disruption’, adding that the Trust wants ‘to maintain urgent GP consultations, palliative care, children’s vaccinations and many of the clinics and services provided by the treatment room’, as well as routine repeat prescriptions. That level of coverage, described as an ‘urgent care only model’ by North Down MP Stephen Farry, is set to continue for at least a few weeks as Trust officials get to grips with running the large practice. Said Mr Farry after the Alliance Party met with officials this week: “We were informed that initially the Trust will be running an urgent care model and that, while care is available ,they will need to prioritise those patients with more serious issues. “Patients do not need to do anything and have been asked to contact the surgery as normal when needed.  “This is far from an ideal situation, but the Trust emphasised that after the first few weeks of operation things should stabilise and availability will increase as the situation normalises.”

Mr Farry’s party colleague, North Down MLA Andrew Muir, said: “I fully understand people’s real anxiety. “While grateful to the Trust for stepping in to provide care, there is genuine concern around the standard and ability to access primary care during this time. We will be monitoring the situation closely.” Fellow Alliance MLA Connie Egan urged anyone having trouble with their care to contact elected representatives directly so they can help raise the case. Speaking after his own meeting with health officials, DUP MLA Stephen Dunne said it is vital that GP services are improved, and not reduced. “Patients deserve a quality and accessible service, and they also rightly expect to be able to build up a relationship with their GP. “I will continue to press the need for a permanent solution to address the very genuine and real concerns which continue to exist for patients around the future of both Priory and Springhill surgeries.”

The NHS took over the practice after failing to find new GP partners who were both willing and able to run it. Back in August of last year old GP partners announced that they were stepping down at the start of February 2023, meaning that without new partners to take the facility over, Priory and Springhill would have stopped providing health care services. Despite months of negotiations with different interested parties, however, the NHS couldn’t get replacements in place before the deadline. Talks collapsed at the eleventh hour last week, and it’s understood that at least two of the three interested parties who entered negotiations since August last year baulked at taking on an operation as large as Priory and Springhill.