General Practice “on the verge of collapse” as Dalriada Urgent Care expands in Ballymena
Updated: May 1
A second GP surgery in Ballymena is set to enter a partnership with Dalriada Urgent Care as a local GP speaking to Love Ballymena warns that General Practice in the town is "on the verge of collapse".
There have been questions over the future of the Gables Medical Centre on Waveney Road in the town with both lead partners in the practice recently retiring from full-time practice. Dr Stephen Russell succeeded his predecessor Dr Dan Kennedy from the old Clonavon Practice in March 1990. He set up the current surgery premises with 'The Gables Medical Centre' officially opening on 1 April of the same year.
Dr Claire Simms became a partner of the practice in April 1997, having previously worked as a GP in Kells and Connor Medical Centre.
Love Ballymena can reveal that in the absence of being able to find a lead GP to take over The Gables, the practice has entered an arrangement with Dalriada Urgent Care which is hoped will save the surgery from closure and protect the jobs of the remaining staff.
Dalriada Urgent Care (DUC) has described the arrangement in a message sent by the company as a "new venture in primary care".
DUC also confirmed it is entering into a "partnership" with The Gables Medical Centre "with a view to a similar model" as it's agreed takeover of the Kells & Connor Medical Practice from Tuesday 2 May 2023.
It is understood that both practices will continue running with the current staff team - it is understood the current arrangement in Kells will see a rotating cast of locum doctors coming in at short notice to allow the practice to remain open until a more definitive plan is reached. In the case of The Gables, both Drs Russell and Simms will continue to have a part-time role while the transition is made.
To date patients of The Gables Medical Centre have not been informed of changes, and the new arrangements that are being agreed have not been communicated and are not commonly known.
Responding to our request for comment, Dr Stephen Russell said:
“The partners and staff of GMC (Gables Medical Centre) are delighted to be working alongside Dalriada Urgent Care to ensure ongoing care for our patients and the long term continuity of the practice.”
Dalriada Urgent Care Limited is not a private company but is listed on the government's Companies House website as a 'Registered Society'. Nonetheless while the intervention and agreements reached with DUC are helping to save two local practices from closure and the system from collapse, there are worries that the move by DUC is a step towards more larger groups gaining an ever-growing influence over public services, and an eventual step toward back door privatisation in the health service.
The change is also considered by many as a move away from the decades old model of the 'family doctor' that communities have come to expect across Northern Ireland.
In England, private companies such as Virgin have made advances in contracting GP's to provide services back into the NHS, with fears that such scenarios could soon be seen locally across Northern Ireland, subject to approval by the Strategic Planning and Performance Group (SPPG)
The SPPG plans and oversees the delivery of health and social care services for the population of Northern Ireland. The Group is part of the Department of Health and is accountable to the Minister for Health (currently in the absence of a functioning Executive and Health Minister, this is Permanent Secretary Peter May).
Another GP in the Ballymena area has spoken to Love Ballymena on condition of anonymity, plainly stating "General Practice in Ballymena is on the verge of collapse" and has asked the public to contact their local political representatives to demand urgent action. The GP also scathingly attacked the SPPG for a lack of leadership and stated the body offers "minimal help" to struggling GP's.
The local GP who is at the heart of medical care provision to families across Ballymena, said:
"The recent interventions by Dalriada Urgent Care in Kells and now The Gables were necessary to prevent a sudden 'domino effect' of GP resignations and practice closures.
"There are two other practices in the Ballymena area in immediate danger of closure, in addition to the several receiving Northern Federation 'Crisis GP' support.
"The ongoing vacuum of political and medical leadership support from Government and SPPG is hastening the end of publicly funded General Practice despite our repeated warnings for years.
"We receive minimal help on a day-to-day basis from the SPPG, whose job it is to support and reform primary care.
"Attracting, recruiting, and retaining medical, nursing, and administrative staff is a near impossibility. Many GPs I know desperately need to retire or reduce their sessions for the sake of their health, but are unable to do so because there is no-one to cover for them.
"Despite year-on-year higher expectations from SPPG and patients, our funding levels are static or decreasing. We are haemorrhaging experienced staff.
"Patients rightly expect timely access, quality care, free at the point of use. With a heavy heart someone has to be brave enough to say that our local GPs are no longer able to deliver on those expectations.
"If you’re reading this, I may have delivered care to you in my capacity as a GP. Now it is my turn to ask for YOUR help in saving your local Surgery.
"I’m urging you to take time to write to your local political representatives to express concern about the demise of the “family doctor”.
"Without further immediate intervention, we will soon be a thing of the past."
Additionally the SPPG has been criticised for a lack of communication with GP's in the area. It has been revealed that other General Practices in the town first found out about the crisis and possible closures of two practices based in the Health & Care Centre, and more recently Kells & Connor, through Love Ballymena, rather than the SPPG.
In response to our request for a statement on the current state of GP services in the wider Ballymena area and across Northern Ireland, a Department of Health spokesperson told Love Ballymena:
"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".
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley responding to today's disclosures states the "recent turmoil in GP services has been a long time in the making".
While the MP has called for "a new strategic approach" to General Practice in Northern Ireland, he has also welcomed the partnership with Dalriada Urgent Care to save surgeries from closure.
The MP said:
"The recent turmoil in GP services has been a long time in the making. A new strategic approach to delivering GP services has been required for some years but it is clear that we are now at a critical juncture.
"The recent rescue plan for Kells and Connor that colleagues and I played some part in facilitating is a strong indication of how a new model of GP services could be developed in the future.
"I note the situation at The Gables Medical Centre which is about to receive a similar rescue plan that will bring assurances to its many patients, that they will continue to enjoy stable delivery of local GP services".
Mr Paisley added:
"Frankly, I can’t thank Dalriada Urgent Care enough for their approach to this emerging hiatus in services. A new pattern is emerging where many GPs want to have a salaried position as opposed to be running and owning an entire practice.
"Recently in parliament I was able to support a budget measure impacting on pension rights of GPs. This has created some headroom for those GPs who are under pressure to leave the service but this is not the entire solution. It is at least a part fix to pension provisions.
"It is important that the new dispensation of GP services is supported and together we can ensure a stable way forward for the delivery of local GP services".
Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan said that urgent action is needed to address the crisis in GP services in Ballymena and across North Antrim.
The Sinn Féin MLA commented:
“It is extremely concerning to hear how surgeries in Ballymena are struggling to cope in our growing health crisis.
“As a result patients are not getting the care they need while others struggle to get to see a doctor at all and urgent action is needed to address this.
“We absolutely need an Executive up and running now to invest in the health service to support and resource our GP services, to recruit more doctors and nurses, to help people who can’t get access to a GP.
“The DUP needs to end its pathetic boycott of government now, form an Executive and work with the rest of us to improve out health service for all our people.”
Meanwhile at Kells and Connor Medical Practice, late evening opening hours look soon to be offered by Dalriada Urgent Care.
In a message sent to GP's and seen by Love Ballymena, the company has shared a 'new opportunity' to provide pre-booked general medical services (GMS) on a Monday, Thursday and Friday evening from 6:30pm to 9:30pm.
GP's are being offered £350 per three hour session to cover the service.