Michelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)
Council to request urgent meeting as two GP practices facing closure in Ballymena
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is to request an urgent meeting with the Permanent Secretary for Health over the proposed closure of two GP practices at Ballymena Health Centre.
Ballymena DUP Alderman Audrey Wales MBE who proposed the motion at a meeting of the local authority at The Braid on Monday evening said the loss would affect seven thousand patients.
She also suggested councillors should seek a meeting with the health centre GPs.
Ald Wales said:
“Some people are really concerned about not being able to see their doctor. Quite often we get messages asking us not to go to A&E unless it is an emergency. If these two practices close, this will add more pressure on our hospitals.”
Ald Wales commented on the knock-on effect for patients during the Covid pandemic which, she noted, has seen operations being “put back further”.
“Now GPs will be even harder to get. It is not feasible for the rest of the doctors to absorb such a high number of patients. They are already overworked.”
She proposed the council talks to the remaining GPs at the health centre to seek their opinions and solutions for the way forward.
Seconding the motion, party colleague Braid Cllr William McCaughey said:
“It is a truly worrying state. Since Covid and before, we have watched our GP services struggle.”
He went on to say demands on doctors are becoming greater year after year.
He noted that 10 GP practices in Northern Ireland have been affected in some way “without clarity from the health department on the way forward or those in authority really do not know what to do”.
“It is up to us to make demands on the Department for clarity for our constituents. All of us service users wish to know what is being done to address the urgent need within our GP surgeries.”
Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Cllr Keith Turner said:
“The truth is, in September, the Health Minister Robin Swann tried to address a situation that had been neglected for many years.”
These included a £5.5m package to help ease pressures facing primary care services across Northern Ireland.
Mr Swann said at the time:
“The pressures in primary care services are caused in large part by historic under-investment over a number of years which has left the system struggling to meet ever-growing demand."
In addition, the then Health Minister increased the number of GP training places in Northern Ireland to an “all-time high” of 121.
Ballymena SDLP Cllr Eugene Reid stated:
“I share the concerns of those 7,000 patients. This is appalling and it is also indicative of years and years and years of lack of planning on behalf of the health service."
He pointed out the health and care centre in Ballymena was established after the Waveney Hospital was “taken away” and to provide services so patients do not have to travel to Causeway Hospital in Coleraine or Antrim Hospital.
Cllr Reid blamed what he described as a “lack of decision-making” by politicians or a “fear of being judged on the doorsteps”.
“Until we get to a point where our politicians can make these decisions, we are not going to deal with the problems affecting our health service.”
In a further statement afterwards, he stressed that “every effort” must be made to find GPs to take over the contracts in question and “avert the closure of the surgeries”.
He said: “The thought of 7,000 people trying to find a new practice at a time when our health service is under extreme pressure doesn’t bear thinking about and the Department of Health must do everything in their power to find new doctors to take over these surgeries and protect services for patients.
“What we really need are functioning institutions at Stormont to make the necessary changes so that everyone can access healthcare when they need it.”
Coast Road Sinn Fein CllrJames McKeown commented:
“In Carnlough, Glenarm and the rest of the Glens, you find a situation where one of our surgeries is basically closed and left people struggling to even see a doctor or talk to a doctor.
“It is a wee bit ironic that the motion is being brought by two members who are members of a party boycotting Stormont.”
Party colleague Bannside Cllr Ian Friary said that without a functioning Executive, writing to the Permanent Secretary would be a “waste of time as nothing would be done by the Tory government”.
Ballymena Alliance Cllr John Hyland said the loss of GP services would put more pressure on the emergency services and waiting lists.
“We are also going to see people’s health being affected by the cost of living crisis,” he added.
Ballymena TUV Cllr Matthew Armstrong said he was “a bit saddened” that health was being made “a political football” and reiterated the need to “sit down” with the GPs.
Larne Lough Alliance Cllr Robert Logan said he fully supports the motion but he does not believe the Permanent Secretary “has the authority to do very much about it”.
“The only people who do have the authority is the Northern Ireland Assembly. We can write to the Permanent Secretary and see if some sort of resolution can be made.”
Ald Wales added: “Our GPs deserve us to try.”