Northern Ireland

Dalriada Hospital wards may never reopen, court told

Image caption It was proposed that the unit, in Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle, would close until March next year

Wards at Dalriada Hospital may never reopen if temporary closure plans are not halted, the High Court has heard.

The unit in Ballycastle, County Antrim, is to close until March next year due to cuts to the Northern Health and Social Care Trust's budget.

It is Northern Ireland's only dedicated multiple sclerosis respite unit.

On Tuesday, a High Court judge was told public consultation announced after the decision would be "pushed through as a fait accompli".

Lawyers seeking to stop the reduction in services claimed the plans were unlawful and had united the five main political parties in condemnation.

They set out their case as they sought a court order stating that new patients admitted pending the outcome of the legal challenge.

The unit can accommodate 12 patients while the intermediate care ward can hold another 20.

Alternative options

According to the trust, alternative respite options will be made available.

Judicial review proceedings against the temporary closure have been brought by Philomena McKay, a 54-year-old MS sufferer who has been using the Dalriada facility for years.

Her lawyers have already cleared the first stage in their legal action amid claims that staff or patients were never consulted on the plans.

But they returned to court on Tuesday to challenge the block on new admissions while the legal battle continues.

Ms McKay's barrister said: "The concern of the applicant and others in the community generally in Ballycastle is that this closure is, or will become, a permanent closure.

"There have been previous attempts to close Dalriada Hospital by the predecessors of the Northern Trust, and they have only been prevented by public outcry."

Those suspicions have been shared by all the political parties calling for Health Minister Jim Wells to reverse the plans, according to the barrister.

Quoting from an assembly debate on the issue, he claimed there had been "extraordinary" unity at Stormont that the plans amounted to "permanent closure by another form".

In a critical assessment of the consultation exercise now announced, he claimed: "The minister is now trying to close the door after the horse has bolted, and indeed after he has shooed the horse up the lane."

Mr Justice Treacy was also told the closure was not merited through any financial savings.

Although the trust was originally faced with finding ways to deal with a £30m deficit, the court heard the most recent figures point to making savings of £6.9m.

Closing the Dalriada units will account for just over £550,000, according to the barrister.

Responding for the health authorities, a barrister argued that no MS patients are scheduled for respite at Dalriada until February.

By that stage, both the consultation process and legal challenge may have been concluded, he said.

Any patients requiring urgent respite care will be cared for at two facilities in Cushendun and Garvagh, the court heard.

Although there is no current intake of patients for the intermediate beds, the barrister said the trust had put in place alternative arrangements.

"Any patient who requests it will be catered for," he said.

The barrister also contended that political representatives can hold the minister to account through the health committee at Stormont.

Reserving judgment on the application for an interim order, Mr Justice Treacy said he would give his decision on Thursday.

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