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Unions protest as trust say A&E changes are 'temporary'

Unions have been angered by the "temporary measures" brought in to emergency care at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

UNIONS angered by changes in emergency care cover at the Mater Hospital have staged a protest as health chiefs insisted the move was "temporary".

Scores of Unison and Unite members holding placards gathered at the facility in north Belfast on Thursday to voice their concerns at the changes amid fears it was a "prelude to attempts to close the Mater site".

Since last week it was announced that children under 14 requiring attending the A&E would be diverted to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Ambulances have also been stopped from attending the A&E department from 6pm to 8am.

Unions have described the move as "unacceptable".

The Belfast trust revealed on Thursday that the decision to downgrade services at the Mater came after two senior doctors voiced concerns for patient safety due to pressures from staff shortages.

Dr John Maxwell, clinical director of emergency medicine in Belfast, said while there had been "ongoing" staffing difficulties, "two members of my consultant staff came to me and said look we are not happy".

"When a senior doctor says to you I have concerns, you can't ignore that," he said.

Cathy Jack, medical director of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, insisted the A&E changes were a "temporary measure" and they were working to have the cover reinstated.

"Last Friday, the senior doctors who all worked regularly on the Mater shop floor raised vulnerabilities to me about the out-of-hours senior medical cover and I took the temporary action, which I believe was appropriate and measured to ensure ongoing safe high quality care," she said.

Around 130 people - and fewer than 10 children - attend the Mater's A&E every day with up to a dozen ambulances from 6pm to 8am.

But she said despite the changes, the Mater was "still going to see around 110 attendances a day" and "will continue to be a vitally important emergency department".

Dr Jack also said the measures were needed to ensure the "right number of appropriately skilled senior doctors out-of-hours are present" to deal with people attending A&E.

She said the "clinical team are actively working on this with management to see if there are designated evenings that we can open up and have business as usual, as previous and extend the ambulance hours but we wish to do that in a safe way and ensuring ongoing safety".

"When the clinical team are satisfied that the cover is there, we will be lifting this temporary measure," she added.

Dr Jack said trusts throughout the UK and Ireland have faced similar challenges in trying to recruit senior doctors.

"These doctors have at least 10 years of experience so that's five as an undergraduate and then an extra five as postgraduate, so there isn't a quick fix in recruiting these doctors but they are the ones that make sure the department is safe for those that are the most sick," she said.

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