10 February 2000 Edition

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DUP low blow on hospital decision


DUP Assembly member Iris Robinson has refused to withdraw sectarian comments in which she described Health Minister Bairbre de Brún's decision to site regional maternity services at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast as ``building a Catholic hospital for Catholic people''. Robinson's remarks, made during a speech to the DUP's Strangford constituency association last week, met angry responses from women's groups, politicians and health officials.

Women's groups from both communities united to condemn the comments, accusing Iris Robinson of turning the issue into a ``political football''. In a joint statement, Cathy Lundy of the Shankill Women's Centre and Maura McCrory of the Falls Women's Group said they had been ``shocked and dismayed'' by the DUP health committee member's remarks.

``We come from both communities and our only concern is for the health and safety of mothers and babies, both locally and regionally,'' said Lundy and McCrory. As chairpersons of the Royal's Joint Liaison Group, the two spokespersons said the Royal Maternity Hospital had served both communities for many years in a totally impartial fashion with no regard whatsoever for creed or political view. ``We call on Iris Robinson to withdraw her remarks immediately,'' they said.

The row followed a decision by the minister to end a seven-year wrangle between Belfast's two main hospitals, both of which had campaigned vigorously to become the city's main provider of maternity services. In 1993, the amalgamation of Belfast's maternity provision was suggested following a review by the Eastern Health Board into acute hospital services. A year later, NIO Minister Baroness Denton decided to have one consultant-led maternity unit for the two main hospitals.

A series of recommendations by the then chief medical officer Dr James McKenna to rationalise services were accepted by both the Royal and City hospitals with one exception. The row over maternity services continued. McKenna proposed to shut down both the Royal Maternity and City-based Jubilee hospital and relocate maternity services at the City's tower block. But the criteria for such a move were challenged after the Royal was identified as a ``centre of excellence'' and the row continued.

Tory NIO Minister Malcolm Moss favoured the City but was replaced by Labour's Tony Worthington, who opted for the Royal. Two other health ministers followed, John McFall and George Howarth, but the decision still hung in the balance. Last July, the issue went to the High Court where a decision to close the Jubilee pending the building of a new maternity unit was quashed by Judge Coghlin. A new round of consultations began but the writing was on the wall.

Just before the new year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health removed accreditation for the training of junior doctors from the Jubilee. Then the Eastern Health Board approved the transfer of specialist neonatal services from the Jubilee to the Royal. A day later and the Jubilee's flagging fortunes were again boosted when the City Hospital received the backing of the Assembly's Health Committee. The final decision rested with the Health Minister Bairbre de Brun but within hours of announcing her decision to site a new maternity hospital at the Royal, consultants at the City were calling for a public inquiry.

It is widely believed that the siting of maternity services close to the Children's Hospital at the Royal enables comprehensive care for new mothers of sick newborns as the care of both mother and child would be on site. Mortality statistics have supported this view. However six consultants at the City Hospital are challenging de Brún's decision, arguing that the link between gynaecological and maternity services at the City should be preserved.

``The minister has not considered gynaecology,'' said Dr John Price, ``but that is an integral part of the service.'' A public inquiry is the only way to resolve this once and for all, he argued. But for the Health Minister, the matter has already been resolved once and for all. ``My decision was not restricted to paediatric arguments but was informed by them, just as it was by arguments about gynaecological linkage and other clinical factors,'' said de Brún. ``This saga of the siting of maternity services has now been running for years. It's time we moved on.''

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