Poots says he did not support Downe weekend A&E closure

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Health Minister Edwin Poots told the Assembly people were "barking up the wrong tree" if they thought he supported the closure of accident and emergency services at the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick at weekends, on 14 January 2014.

"If I can get the doctors that facility would be open this weekend," he said.

Mr Poots said the departure of two specialty doctors and problems recruiting locums meant "this wasn't a sustainable position".

The minister described a series of measures taken by the trust in an attempt to recruit doctors for the Downe, including interviewing staff from Romania and trawling over 30 employment agencies.

"A considerable effort has been made," he said.

The minister outlined actions to be a taken to address the problems at the Downe and at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn, including the development of an implementation plan.

The SDLP's Sean Rogers brought the adjournment debate calling for the retention of 24 hour accident and emergency service at the weekends at the Downe Hospital.

Mr Rogers noted that his recently-deceased party colleague, Eddie McGrady MP, "chose to spend his last days in the Downe".

"Eddie, I know you're with us in spirit tonight," Mr Rogers said.

He said the hospital was a major economic driver for the Downpatrick area.

"What about this Golden Hour?" the MLA asked, referring to the period when medical intervention can save lives.

"We are told that money is not an issue," he said.

Mr Rogers said they had been told the problem was that middle-ranking doctors did not want to work in Downpatrick.

Jim Wells of the DUP drew the analogy of a police sergeant in North Down refusing to serve in another area.

He said that under the present system it was inevitable that doctors would gravitate towards the major hospitals in Belfast.

Mr Wells said the authorities needed the powers to say to doctors: "you're needed there and you will go".

He said it was unfair to blame the minister or his department.

Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard described the actions of the trust as "a severe and unwarranted cut".

He said that if it was not remedied "we will likely see fatal consequences".

Mr Hazzard criticised the reluctance of doctors to work outside Belfast and said it was time "to smash the cosy consensus with the BMA".

He said to the minister, Edwin Poots, that if he did not feel he could tackle the problem, "you need to seriously consider if you are fit for the job".

Joanne Dobson of the UUP questioned whether the trust and the hospital did absolutely everything to resolve the staffing problem.

She said she suspected it was "an attempt at creeping closure through stealth".

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