Northern Ireland

Trust and unions meet over City Hospital A&E closure

Belfast City Hospital tower
Image caption A lack of senior staff means the A&E services at the City Hospital is likely to close temporarily

Some of the most senior directors at the Belfast Health Trust have told local health unions, that 7 September is their cut-off point before they start to officially plan for the temporary closure of the City Hospital's A&E department.

It's the first official meeting between management and trade unions about the potential closure.

The meeting took place on Friday morning on the City Hospital site.

It's the first time that representatives from Unison, Nipsa and the Royal College of Nursing had formal talks with management since it emerged at the start of July that the City Hospital's A&E department had been earmarked for temporary closure.

The trust has said it has no other option but to close the department as two senior medical doctors are due to leave their posts in A&E on 30 September.

Friday's delegation from the Belfast Health Trust included the directors of nursing, human resources and the co-director of pay and employee relations.

When contacted by the BBC about the meeting, a spokesperson from the trust said: "The trust board will meet on 7 September, they will consider all efforts that have been made to date to keep the three emergency departments open in Belfast.

"If at this point we have been unsuccessful, we will be asked to approve a contingency plan to ensure that a safe service is provided to the public."

Mixed reaction

But there's been a mixed reaction among those who attended the briefing.

A spokesperson from Unison said while it welcomed the opportunity to talk about the future of A&E services, it remained unconvinced that the trust was really trying to recruit new staff.

A Unison member said: "We told them we wanted to see on paper a programme of action detailing how exactly they are trying to recruit staff. We have asked for documentation - let's see if they can produce it."

It has emerged that the Belfast Health Trust has extended its search to find senior medical staff to Cuba. In the past couple of months they have held recruitment drives in Europe and India.

In an interview with the BBC, the chief executive of the Belfast Health Trust, Colm Donaghy, said if the trust was able to successfully recruit staff to fulfil rota obligations at the City's accident and emergency department the temporary closure could be averted.

But those attempts, had so far, been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Nipsa and the RCN have described the talks as constructive.

A spokesperson for the latter union, which represents nurses, told the BBC: "The RCN has said consistently that the Belfast Trust needs to ensure that frontline staff are engaged with and consulted on changes to services.

"This is still a time of uncertainty for staff, however this meeting was a step in the right direction and we are encouraged that the trust has agreed to meet with the trade unions on a weekly basis to keep us up-to-date with developments."

It's understood that the trust's contingency plans will include formal negotiations about the transfer of staff from the City to the Royal's site and how it intends to house those extra patients with the Royal's A&E department.

Around 50,000 people attend the City Hospital's accident and emergency department a year.

A majority of these patients will be treated at the Royal instead.

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