Northern Ireland

Muckamore: Families would be consulted about hospital's future

Muckamore Abbey Hospital
Image caption The County Antrim hospital caters for vulnerable adults with severe learning disabilities and mental health needs

Any decision about the future of services at Muckamore Abbey Hospital would be taken after consultation with patients, families, carers and staff, the Department of Health has said.

The sister of a patient at Muckamore said families are extremely concerned about staffing levels.

Four nurses and four care assistants are the latest to be placed on precautionary suspension.

It brings the total number of staff currently suspended to 28.

There is an ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged abuse of patients.

Allegations of ill treatment began to surface at Muckamore in November 2017 and police are currently reviewing 300,000 hours of CCTV footage.

When asked by the BBC about the sustainability of the hospital a Department of Health spokesperson said: "Business continuity plans are constantly revised and updated and there is an ongoing process to ensure appropriate contingency plans are in place to reflect the pressures facing Muckamore Abbey Hospital."

Vacant posts

BBC News NI can also reveal that two of the most senior management posts at the hospital are unfilled.

These are co-director of learning disability services, and service manager. The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said it is planning a further recruitment exercise.

Mairead Mitchell who was acting as co-director retired in May 2019.

Brigene McNeilly, whose brother is a patient at Muckamore, told BBC News NI staffing is at a "critical level" and at times "it's visible that wards are difficult to cover."

Mrs McNeilly said there were clear gaps in ward staffing, which places additional pressure on those who are left in charge.

"We are urging families and friends who visit to help those staff who are there looking after our loved ones - they are under pressure this is a very difficult time for everyone," she said.

Continued suspensions are placing huge pressure on the running and viability of the facility in the short term.

Agency workers

BBC News NI understands some of the latest staff to be placed under precautionary suspension have been off on sick leave.

With staffing levels seriously depleted, it is understood that more than 50% of the current workforce at the hospital is provided by bank or agency workers.

Nurses required to look after patients who are extremely vulnerable with acute learning disabilities must be specialist. They are in short supply in Northern Ireland.

As a result a pool of nurses from England is being used to fill rotas, especially at the weekend.

BBC News NI asked the Department of Health about fears some families and staff have about the safety of the hospital.

In a statement, a spokesperson said that the department alongside the Belfast Trust and the RQIA is keeping the safe and effective operation of Muckamore Abbey Hospital under constant review.

"Suspensions contribute to the challenge of maintaining required staffing levels and every practical step is being taken to manage the facility at this very difficult time.

"The Belfast Trust has assured the department that the care being provided in Muckamore is safe, and that all necessary actions will continue to be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of all patients."

As staffing becomes increasingly difficult, BBC News NI understands the authorities are exploring other options by which some patients could be moved from the County Antrim site and into other health trust facilities - for instance at Knockbracken.

The Belfast Trust, alongside local charities, is trying to re-house patients into the community.

According to the trust, six patients are being assessed and treated at the hospital.

The remaining 54 are getting "therapeutic care while they await resettlement or discharge".

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