Fears about future of Muckamore hospital following further staff suspensions
A SPIKE in the number of fresh suspensions at the scandal-hit Muckamore Abbey hospital has sparked concerns about its future - and intensified pressure for a public inquiry.
The Belfast health trust last night confirmed a further eight staff at the Co Antrim facility have been suspended in connection with an unprecedented abuse investigation.
The Irish News has learned that at least four of the staff are registered nurses - bringing the total number of "precautionary suspensions" to 28.
Sources say that further action against employees is expected over the next week after a specialist team of detectives uncovered more CCTV evidence of alleged physical assaults and neglect of vulnerable patients in 2017.
It is understood that talks are being held at the highest level about the future sustainability of the hospital, which provides inpatient care to adults with severe learning disabilities from across the north.
Health trust contingency plans on how to manage the hospital with such a serious shortfall of nursing staff are to be forwarded to the Department of Health today "for consideration", with an announcement expected later this week as to whether it will be wound down.
The safe discharge and resettlement of long-term Muckamore patients are expected to be shared among other health trusts - though concerns have been raised privately as to whether the community sector is adequately equipped to care for those with such complex needs.
The development comes a fortnight after the lead PSNI officer heading up the probe revealed that 1,500 crimes had been identified - in relation to just one ward.
In her first interview since the story broke just over a year ago, Detective Chief Inspector Jill Duffie confirmed that the Muckamore investigation is the "largest adult safeguarding case" of its kind within the Northern Ireland police service, with more of 300,000 hours of CCTV images being viewed by police.
It is understood the latest staff suspensions are linked to the PSNI's investigation of a second ward in which cameras were installed - but which staff did not realise were turned on.
Last night the head of a trade union representing the majority of staff linked to the investigation said she was "seriously concerned" about the suspension of a further four nurses as well as the ability of the current workforce to deliver safe care.
Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "We are currently dealing with significant concerns raised by nurses around how they can provide safe care, given the level of vacancies, precautionary suspensions and sickness levels at Muckamore.
"So we would struggle to understand how they can continue to provide safe services in accordance with their professional code of conduct."
Dundonald man Glynn Brown, who was the first person to alert the Department of Health to the scale of the abuse after his son was allegedly assaulted as a patient, also expressed his "profound concern" at the staffing crisis.
"If there is such a dramatic increase in suspensions how can this hospital safely care for patients," he said.
"And how bad does it have to get before the Department of Health call a public inquiry? It is urgently required to give the families answers."
The Irish News asked the Department last night to respond to fears about the future of the hospital and a spokesman said it is keeping the "safe and effective operation of Muckamore Abbey under constant review".
He added: "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 Department has been engaging with other Trusts to ensure that the HSC is providing the necessary support to the Belfast Trust and Muckamore Abbey."
A Belfast trust spokesman confirmed yesterday's suspensions and said: "We wish to reiterate our sincere apologies to those patients and their families affected by staff behaviours which fell significantly below professional standards and were unacceptable at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, and for the resulting distressing impact on their lives.
"We wish to assure families that care in Muckamore is safe, and that staffing levels remain secure. Staffing is currently augmented by bank and agency staff. In addition, the Trust is engaged in active recruitment.
"Considerable work has been undertaken across all areas of care in Muckamore and we are working with our patients and their families, our partners in the community and other Trusts with the wellbeing of patients being our primary concern. We would like to thank our patients, their families and our staff for working with us at this very challenging time."