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Hamilton steps in as Four Seasons Health Care closes seven homes

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media captionFour Seasons Health Care, the UK's largest private care home operator, said the seven homes were making a loss

The possible closure of a number of statutory care homes has been halted due to problems being faced by a private care homes firm.

In May, it was announced that consultations would take place over the possible closure of 10 state-run residential care homes.

However, that process has now been put on hold by the health minister.

It comes after Four Seasons Health Care said it was closing seven privately-owned care homes.

The seven care home closures will affect 254 patients and 393 staff.

Four Seasons said it was closing them because they are "operating at a loss".

The firm still runs another 62 care homes throughout Northern Ireland. It is the UK's largest private care home operator.

Following news of the closures, Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he had now asked the Health and Social Care Board to "halt and review" the consultation on state-owned care homes.

"Some of these proposals to close some [statutory] homes were predicated on spare capacity within the independent sector," Mr Hamilton said.

"When some capacity within the independent sector's being reduced, I think it's only right and proper that we pause and reflect and carefully consider the implications."

A spokesman for the company described the decision as "difficult but unavoidable".

"The principal reason behind this decision is that each of these homes is operating at a loss and they are no longer viable," he added.

'Shortage of nurses'

"The fee income that the homes receive is below the cost of the care they are providing and we have effectively been paying a subsidy for them to continue to provide care. We regret that we cannot continue to sustain this position."

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image captionStormont Care Home in east Belfast is one of the care homes that is set to close

In its statement, the firm also said the "national shortage of nurses" meant it had been difficult to recruit and retain permanent staff "of the right calibre".

"This leaves the homes reliant on temporary agency nurses in order to maintain staffing levels, that carries a high cost and presents challenges in maintaining the quality of care we expect to provide."

'Complete shock'

Staff affected by the closures may be able to transfer to the company's other care homes, if suitable vacancies are available.

"We would like to retain as many employees as we can and we expect that most of our nurses and a substantial number of our care staff will be able to transfer," the firm's statement said.

The union Unison is to hold negotiations with Four Seasons and has also contacted each of Northern Ireland's five health trusts to seek urgent meetings.

"The five health trusts are the major clients of Four Seasons and many of their decisions on the future of the NHS care home provision were predicated on using the private sector as an alternative provider," the union's Patricia McKeown.

image captionSimon Hamilton said the proposed closure of some statutory care homes would now be reviewed

"We have been alerting the board and the trusts to financial problems within Four Seasons for some time now. Today's announcement is a clear indicator that residential care for our older population cannot be left to the market."

The union that represents many of the employees, the GMB, said the closures had come "as a complete shock".

"We and the staff had no prior warning ahead of the announcement," GMB's regional officer Alan Perry told the BBC.

"We only found out at 9:45 [GMT] and they were making the announcement in the homes at 10am. There are a lot of hard-working staff affected. Some of these homes are in rural towns, where there are not many employers," Mr Perry added.

Emergency review

Andy Graham, who works at the Oakridge Care Home in County Down, said he was angry about the lack of communication with staff before the announcement was made public.

He said he did not know about the closures until he saw it on the BBC Newsline Facebook page.

"I'm totally disgusted," Mr Graham told BBC Radio Ulster.

"I feel more for the residents' families, they're going to have to get re-homed. It's not nice at any time of year, but especially with Christmas too just around the corner."

Four Seasons Health Care will now begin a 12-week period of discussions with families and health care trusts, so none of the homes will close before the end of February 2016.

In October, the company appointed advisers to carry out an emergency review of its finances.

The private equity-owned firm has debt of more than £500m which attracts annual interest payments of around £50m.

Related Topics

  • Ballynahinch
  • Elderly people
  • Belfast
  • Armagh
  • Donaghcloney
  • Garvagh
  • Antrim
  • Care homes

More on this story

  • Four Seasons Health Care to close seven care homes in Northern Ireland