Decision expected on Northern Ireland child heart surgery
A NI children's charity has said it is hopeful the health minister can retain a cardiac service at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
The deadline for the decision is long overdue with fears that surgery will close and move to Dublin.
Sarah Quinlan of the Children's Heartbeat Trust said the issue had "been badly handled from the start".
Ms Quinlan said damage had been done to the service before Health Minister Edwin Poots became involved.
"We feel that by the time the minister got involved last summer, a lot of the groundwork for dismantling the service in Belfast had already begun and a great deal of damage was done by the health officials," she said.
"But we remain hopeful that the minister can still maintain a safe cardiac and surgical service for children in Northern Ireland."
A leading children's surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital is due to retire in December, leaving just one surgeon remaining. Also, too few operations are being performed on the Belfast site.
This would suggest that Minister Poots has no option but to move the surgical service to Dublin.
However, the minister appears to be digging his heels in, ensuring Belfast maintains a significant role in the newly planned all-Ireland paediatric children's cardiac service network.
In a statement to the BBC, a spokesperson for Mr Poots said the departments of health, in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, were still exploring the potential for developing a two-centre paediatric children's cardiac service surgical model within the island of Ireland.
The key words here are "surgical model." That could be short-term or perhaps the minister has brokered a deal with his southern counterpart which would see some emergency cover provided by surgeons in Dublin.
When interviewed by the BBC in July, however, surgeons based at Our Lady's Hospital in Dublin said that would not be possible.
To resolve the impasse, it has also emerged that both doctors are seeking international expertise on the issue after enlisting the help of a doctor who runs a two-model system in Boston.
On a recent trip to America the minister met the surgeon who has overall responsibility for around 1,000 procedures taking place in the hospital where he works.
The BBC understands that if Belfast is not to retain surgery, Edwin Poots wants all diagnostics and non-surgical interventions to remain in Northern Ireland.
This would ensure the children's hospital in Belfast would become a centre of excellence for children's cardiac surgery.
The unit would service all border counties as well.
It has been a long and hard-fought campaign. Over the past year, thousands have taken to the streets, while public meetings up and down the country heard from families demanding that children's heart surgery be maintained in Belfast.
Sarah Quinlan said the families "needed answers and soon".
"We need urgent clarification on the future of surgery in Belfast," she said.
"The position we are currently in is a limbo position. We need the minister to urgently clarify what the future holds for the families of very sick and vulnerable children in Northern Ireland."
The public outcry followed a national review which concluded that while safe, the unit at the Royal was not sustainable.
After listening to parents, Edwin Poots intervened and called for a separate review and a consultation which recommended the service be moved to Dublin.
While some felt that was better than the service being moved to England, many believed that local health officials were not fighting Belfast's corner.
A spokesperson for the health department told the BBC: "The minister is aiming to reach a decision on the future delivery of this service as soon as possible."
This is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most emotive decisions facing Edwin Poots.
In a recent sea of negative headlines, the minister will be hoping that the one written on the future of children's heart surgery in Belfast will turn that tide.