A series of proposed cuts by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust could put the “most vulnerable” at risk, it has been suggested.
About 65 hospital beds will be closed across the Trust area as part of a £13m savings plan by the health body.
The vast majority of these (44) are rehabilitation beds at Whiteabbey Hospital.
The cuts, which the Trust says will be temporary, could be implemented as early as November.
The savings measures would also see a reduction in the number of locum doctors and agency nursing staff, along with cuts to domiciliary care packages.
Around 200 people attended a public meeting on the plans at Mossley Mill last Thursday afternoon. Commenting on the event, Carrickfergus UUP Councillor Andrew Wilson said there was “frustration and concern”, but not a lot of answers. “A lot of people talked about the stress and worry this would be putting family members through. The point was made that people could die as a result of some of these cuts.”
The Trust has also made so-called temporary changes in the past which in reality became permanent, Cllr Wilson added: “Whiteabbey used to have a Minor Injuries Unit, it used to have A&E, those are both gone now.”
Concerns were also raised over the fact that the cuts will be implemented at the beginning of winter - a time when the health service is under the most pressure.
Joyce McMurtry, who works in the stroke rehabilitation ward at Whiteabbey, said: “They are talking about closing beds and getting rid of domiciliary care packages.
“All of this leaves me greatly worried for the elderly population - it’s attacking the most vulnerable in society.”
The proposal to close the rehabilitation wards at Whiteabbey would have huge implications for Antrim Area Hospital, according to East Antrim MLA, Roy Beggs. “Patients would continue to occupy acute beds at Antrim,” he said.
“This is being proposed alongside a reduction in nursing and residential packages and home care and would contribute to bed blocking.
“Fewer new patients would be able to be treated at Antrim and the already acceptably long waiting lists would get even longer.
“The NHS needs long term planning and the proposed emergency cuts would cause huge damage, possibly putting patients at risk.
“I would urge the independent members of the health trusts to resign rather than impose the damaging short term health cuts.”
Carrickfergus woman Angela Cragg Wright, who also works at Whiteabbey Hospital, said the plans to end reliance on agency staff could mean employees from Whiteabbey will have to fill vacancies in Antrim. “It was made clear by several members of staff that they would, and some already have been, seeking employment in Belfast Trust as they simply do not wish to work in Antrim Area Hospital,” she said.
And highlighting the depth of feeling over the services at Whiteabbey, Angela told of how her grandmother received the “very best care” at the hospital after fracturing her hip.
“If she had to stay in Antrim with no rehab in Whiteabbey, I think it would’ve killed her,” she added.
In a statement, UNISON’s Stephanie Greenwood described the announcement of the cuts late last month as having left Trust staff “demoralised” and “fearful”.
“They are already under tremendous pressure and they fear for not only themselves but the public they serve,” she added.
A petition against the cuts set up by UNISON has already gathered over 12,000 signatures.