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Cullybackey GP provision must be protected – Gaston

Cullybackey Health Centre with photo inset of Councillor Timothy Gaston.

TUV Bannside councillor Timothy Gaston has said Cullybackey GP provision "must be protected" after the local health centre confirmed that it has handed back their contract to provide services in the area.

Cullybackey Health Centre issued a statement on Friday, May 5th, saying:

"The GP partners of Cullybackey Health Centre can confirm that they have handed back their contract to deliver GP services to the Department of Health from 30th November 2023.

"This is not a decision that has been taken lightly, but due to the retirement of three partners, the workload of a practice of this size is unsustainable for two GPs. Unfortunately all efforts to recruit additional medical staff have been unsuccessful.

"The Department of Health will now begin the process of advertising for and recruiting a new GP contractor.

"We want to reassure our patients that we will continue to deliver GP services as normal until the contract is handed back. Patients do not need to do anything and should continue to contact the practice as normal. The Department of Health will shortly write out to all patients.

"Thank you for your patience and understanding during this process."

The Department of Health confirmed the news which has come as a shock to the community, and is understood to impact over 7,000 patients.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health stated:

"The Department of Health (DoH) can confirm that GPs at Cullybackey Health Centre have given notice of their intention to withdraw from their contract to deliver General Medical Services at the end of the notice period in six months’ time, their contract will end on 30th November 2023.

"DoH will now begin a process to secure alternative arrangements for these services.A number of different options are available to ensure patients are not left without a GP service.

"The preferred option is to secure a GP contractor – or grouping of GPs – to take over the practice through a formal recruitment process. In some circumstances, Health and Social Care Trusts can take over a GP contract as an interim solution.

"We want to reassure patients that the existing Cullybackey Health Centre will continue to retain the contract to deliver GP services for the next six months. Patients at the practice do not need to take any action. They should continue to contact the practice as normal. We will be writing out to all practice patients to keep them informed as this process begins.

"The Department acknowledges the ongoing and significant pressures on GP practices, stemming from the fact that demand for their services is outstripping capacity to provide it.Notwithstanding budgetary pressures, the Department is committed to building the GP workforce.

"We have made significant progress in relation to the number of GPs we train each year. The number of GP training places in Northern Ireland has been increased by 70% from 2015 levels in recent years. The review of places is ongoing and the Department will consider recommendations from the review of training places in the future.

"The Department has also recently streamlined the processes for GPs who qualified in a number of countries to take up roles in Northern Ireland."

Local councillor Timothy Gaston described the announcement as a "significant blow".

“The decision of Cullybackey Health Centre to hand back its contract in six month’s time is a significant blow to Cullybackey and the surrounding rural area," said Mr Gaston.

“There is now a heavy onus on the Department of Health to ensure that those impacted by this news will be able to continue to access GP services locally. 

“Looking forward, it is clear that the current hand to mouth existence of GP services in Cullybackey and indeed across Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to continue.

“TUV will once again make representations to the Health Trust to ensure they do all in their power to find an alternative provider to take on this contract or to ensure there is sufficient provision locally for those patients impacted by this announcement.” 

North Antrim MLA Jim Allister added:

“The Cullybackey situation underscores the fact that there are serious issues with the provision of basic health services. It is perhaps time to think about GPs being directly employed by the Department.”

Responding to the emerging crisis in GP care locally and across the province Dr Alan Stout, BMA NI GP committee chair said:

“This is becoming an increasingly desperate situation for general practice in Northern Ireland, its staff and the patients we care for.

“Such is the speed and number of these contract hand-backs – 15 in the past year alone, affecting tens of thousands of patients – that this is in danger of becoming ‘the norm’. This is far from a normal situation and is hugely significant for all patients, staff, GPs and the local communities they serve.

"The risks to other neighbouring practices of a list dispersal are even more destabilising. This practice will not be the last to fall and is the fourth practice in this locale to hand back its contract. General practice and wider primary care is the most basic function of any health service, accessed by many thousands every single day. If it fails, then the whole NHS will fail.

“Urgent action needs to be taken now to save general practice before we are past the point of no return. In the short term that means stabilising workloads, correcting funding allocations to meet current demand, removing disproportionate admin requirements and finally addressing indemnity rates.

"Long term, we have a workforce crisis that needs meaningful action and the required funding. New GPs are coming through, but this number is not keeping up with the amount of older GPs we are losing to retirement and burnout.”


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