Downe and Lagan Valley A&E shut at weekends
Accident and emergency units at two Northern Ireland hospitals are to close at the weekends from Saturday.
The changes take place at Downe Hospital, Downpatrick and Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn. A shortage of qualified emergency doctors is blamed.
The emergency units will be only be open from Monday to Friday 08:00 GMT - 20:00 GMT.
The Health and Social Care Board said it accepted the trust's view that the changes were "unavoidable".
The board said that on average, a total of 27 patients were admitted from the A&E departments to the Downe and Lagan Valley Hospitals each weekend; 11 to the Downe and 16 to Lagan Valley.
It is expected that at least half of these patients will continue to be admitted directly via the GP out-of-hours service to the two hospitals, rather than having to be admitted via an emergency department.
The remainder are expected to be admitted to other hospitals, mainly the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, with very small numbers going to Craigavon, Antrim and Daisy Hill hospitals.
A board spokesperson said: "Given the small numbers involved it is not anticipated that this should overly pressurise the health and social care system or create any major problems."
Additional services are being put in place across Northern Ireland during the transitional period.
- Up to 10 additional beds could be opened in Lagan Valley to facilitate direct admissions and support transfers back from other hospitals
- At the Ulster Hospital, two additional nurses will be on rota from 12:00 GMT until midnight in the A&E on Saturdays and Sundays and 10 additional beds have been opened over the winter period
- At the Royal Victoria Hospital, there will be six additional in-patient beds; additional A&E nursing staff and senior doctors at weekends
- In the Southern Trust, there will be four additional in-patient beds at Craigavon Area Hospital and an additional emergency nurse practitioner on duty during the day in the A&E departments of both Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill hospitals
- There will be additional emergency and non-emergency ambulance crews in the Downpatrick and Lisburn areas at the weekends
- Additional hospital ambulance liaison officers will be in place at the Ulster, Royal Victoria and Craigavon Hospitals.
Over the weekend, the board said it would co-ordinate meetings to ensure the system can respond to any changing circumstances.
The spokesman added: "The board and South Eastern Local Commissioning Group will be working with the South Eastern Trust to accelerate plans for the long term future for the Downe and Lagan Valley emergency departments. "
SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said she had urged Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots to "ensure new middle-grade doctors are recruited so they can work as locums at the weekend in Downe Hospital A&E".
"The bottom line is that the minister, the trust and the health and social care board must come to an arrangement whereby we have a 24-hour service seven days a week," the South Down MP added.
Paul Givan, DUP assembly member for Lagan Valley, said the closures must be a short-term measure.
"In the long term, it will only be the restoration of 24-hour access to the Lagan Valley Hospital that will be acceptable to meet the needs of local people," he said.