Minister urged to come clean on ‘offensive’ SWAH letter

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill

Health Minister Michelle O’Neill

HEALTH Minister Michelle O’Neill has been criticised for comments she made in a letter sent to local councillors about resources at South West Acute Hospital.
UUP councillor Diana Armstrong claimed she was left “very upset” after the Sinn Fein minister appeared to refer to the Enniskillen hospital and the surrounding area as “unpopular”, “remote” and with “weak training experience”.
The comments were contained in an October 21 letter signed by the Sinn Fein minister, sent in response to councillor’s concerns regarding the high level of staff shortages at the SWAH, particularly among doctors.
The letter was discussed at Tuesday night’s monthly council meeting in Omagh.
The council has been engaging in an ongoing correspondence with the minster and the Department of Health over the long-term problem in attracting full-time  doctors and consultants to the hospital.
The inability to secure long-term posts has created a hefty bill for locum doctors, who have been used to plug the gap in recent years.
In the latest letter to Ms O’Neill, councillors expressed concern that long-term service provision is under threat at SWAH.
Some suggestion was also made that junior doctors could be rotated to Enniskillen as a mandatory part of their training.
While the minister said she understood the reasoning behind the suggestion, she ultimately rejected it.
Ms O’Neill said studies in England and Scotland had identified “a wide complexity” of issues influencing the career decisions of doctors once they complete their medical foundation programme.
She said the “vacancy challenge” was being felt across the Health Service.
“I would have serious concerns that forcing junior doctors to locations that are unpopular due to geographical remoteness, weak training experience or lack a supportive environment will quite likely deter yet more trainees to the overall detriment of the HSC,” she said.
It was those comments in particular which proved controversial to some councillors.
Cllr Diana Armstrong, who was recently co-opted into the seat vacated by new MLA Rosemary Barton, said, “I’m just absolutely astounded by the language.”
The UUP councillor described the SWAH as “world class”, adding, “The language is offensive in my opinion… I’m very upset by the letter and would like a response.”
Fellow UUP councillor Alex Baird said it was “beyond belief” that the minister could sign off on the comments about what he said was “the most modern hospital in Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein councillor Anne Marie Fitzgerald heaped praise on the staff at the SWAH. She said everyone from kitchen staff and porters to nurses were “outstanding in their field”.
The councillor said pressure must be kept up to ensure services remain at the hospital.
She added that as well as the Trust, pressure should be put on the Royal College of Surgeons.
However, Derrylin Sinn Fein councillor Barry Doherty appeared to take exception to some of the criticism laid at the minister’s feet.
Warning against “cheap political points”, he said Fermanagh was geographically remote.
But the comments sparked an interjection by independent councillor Bernice Swift, who accused Cllr Doherty of being “ridiculous”.
It was agreed to make further representations to the Health Minister.


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