COVID-19 has presented the perfect opportunity to investigate the possibility of reopening the Minor Injuries Unit in Armagh.
That's according to the SDLP Newry and Armagh MLA, Justin McNulty, who has written to the Health Minister to ask him about the possibility.
The facility closed in 2015 despite a campaign involving the public and politicians who wanted to keep it open.
And in light of the current pandemic, where pressures on Craigavon and Daisy Hill hospitals' emergency departments are unprecedented, Mr McNulty said that there is no better time to reconsider the closure – and keep it open permanently.
“The reality is that the Health Minister and the Trust have outlined that they do not want people coming to ED unless it is absolutely necessary,” Mr McNulty told the Gazette.
“GPs surgeries are doing phone consultations and in that context, in the context of the risks around COVID and the risks around spreading the virus, surely it makes sense to have a facility where people don't have to go to ED and to help to take the pressure off EDs.
“What better facility than a Minor Injuries Unit? The facility is already in existence.”
Mr McNulty added that the fact that people from this area have to go to Dungannon or Craigavon if they need urgent medical help is “unfair to start with”.
“I think it would be timely now to alleviate the pressures on EDs, prevent the risk of contraction at EDs, and helps alleviate the numbers attending those EDs,” he added.
“It would also provide some reassurance to members of the public.”
Mr McNulty stressed that the pressures on the health service currently are “extraordinary”.
He added: “They're talking about having to phone ahead and 'check in' to ED. It is extraordinary to think that it would even have to be considered but that's the reality of where we are at.
“That's why this service would be so important. It could also serve almost as a triage to ED if necessary, going forward.”
The MLA stated that he will be pressing the issue with the Chief Executive of the Southern Trust, Shane Devlin.
Mr McNulty added that his idea had come about through a conversion he had with Mr Devlin, where he was explaining the rationale for several moves that the Trust are making, including the reopening of the ED at Daisy Hill - a decision which Mr McNulty said was “hugely important”.
He also pointed to the success of Daisy Hill's Pathfinder Group, which was created to solve issues in the hospital's ED when it faced closure in 2017.
Mr McNulty said he would be open to the idea of something similar being set up in Armagh.
“There was lots of support for keeping the Minor Injuries Unit in Armagh and that is why I am probing this,” he said.
“I believe in it and I know how important it was to the people of Armagh and the surrounding areas.
“If people feel passionately about it and they want to form an advocacy group, which the Pathfinder Group essentially is, and work in tandem with the Trust to create better outcomes for everybody I'd be happy to hear from them. It has been hugely successful and I take my hat off to the Pathfinder Group and the Trust for working together and making it the success that it is.”
A spokesperson for the Southern Trust said, “"At this critical stage of the global pandemic, when there are very high levels of Covid19 circulating in our local community and in our hospitals, we are experiencing extreme pressures across our hospitals and facilities. Our exceptional staff continue to provide care and treatment to Covid positive patients/clients in wards and facilities across The Trust. Covid19 has also brought additional challenges due to staff sickness and isolation measures and we currently have more than 500 staff off work for COVID-19 related reasons.
“Emergency Departments in The Trust and across Northern Ireland are extremely busy and the public should attend ED only if they need emergency treatment.
“They also need to come alone or with one adult if absolutely necessary and they must wear a face covering and wash hands.
“The Southern Trust does not plan to reopen the Minor Injuries Unit in Armagh. There is a minor injuries service at South Tyrone Hospital, Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill Hospital.”