By Donal O’Cofaigh
On March 30th, the Southern Health & Social Care Trust (SHSCT) management threatening to ‘temporarily’ suspend A&E cover at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. In the locality and among staff, this was viewed as the latest step in a longstanding agenda of downgrading the hospital.
Campaigners warned that any decision to close Daisy Hill A&E would force patients from as far as Annalong to make up to 75-minute journeys to the closest unit at Craigavon. They highlighted the crisis already existing within A&E services as a result of austerity; at one hospital recently, consultants had to attend patients in eight ambulances queued in front of the A&E as there were no beds available.
The ‘Save Our Emergency Department’ campaign moved quickly to host a large public meeting to demand continued round-the-clock provision. On April 24th, a meeting of one thousand was held at the Canal Court Hotel. On April 27th, trade union Unite provided free buses for the several hundred who protested at the Trust Board meeting in Craigavon.
The dozen or so who were allowed to attend the Trust meeting heard allegations raised by A&E consultant Donal Duffin. He claimed he had presented evidence confirming a premium was paid to junior doctors to work in Craigavon instead of Newry and that showed the SHSCT had not advertised for staff for Newry but had repeatedly done so for Craigavon. His claim was unanswered but undermined the rationale for the threatened closure – insufficient staffing.
At that meeting, the establishment parties – the only ones allowed to speak – took a stronger position on the issue. The Trust chair’s only response was to announce a ‘summit’ on the issue. After the meeting, the Chair and CEO were jeered and challenged by protesters as they left – other board members ducked out the back door.
On May 2nd, the ‘summit’, closed to the public, was convened. The SHSCT announced that it had secured sufficient ‘support’ from across the NHS to ‘sustain 24/7 emergency services at Daisy Hill’. This U-turn was greeted with jubilation but seasoned campaigners and some trade unions warned that this was only a verbal assurance and that pressure from a people power campaign needed to be kept on until adequate resources were ring-fenced; guarantees were provided for the fracture clinic at Daisy Hill; and there was a full, public response to all Dr Duffin’s allegations.
While the establishment politicians would like the genie to go back in the bottle so they can get back to their sectarian headcount election, campaigners are determined to keep the pressure on. On May 12th, Unite’s Newry community branch unveiled a new ‘Hands Off Daisy Hill’ mural on Canal Street. On May 13th, a large rally for Daisy Hill was called in Newry. This campaign should link up with other communities resisting health cuts – like communities facing closure of GP surgeries in Fermanagh and elsewhere – and demand investment to meet need across Northern Ireland.