Concern and confusion rises over Trust's alleged 'Phone First' system at Lagan Valley Emergency Department

Unison Down Lisburn has launched a campaign opposing the South Eastern Health Trust’s alleged plans to introduce a ‘Phone First’ system in early October for patients to access A&E services at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn.

Unison claims the Trust is set to commence a 'Phone First' system at Lagan Valley Hospital Emergency Department
Unison claims the Trust is set to commence a 'Phone First' system at Lagan Valley Hospital Emergency Department

Unison, the largest trade union representing healthcare workers in Northern Ireland, has called upon the South Eastern Trust to halt its alleged plans to introduce a ‘Phone First’ system.

In a statement, the trade union claimed that whilst to date no details have been provided by the Trust on how the proposed ‘Phone First’ system will operate and the hours and days it will cover, it is expected that anyone seeking to access the A&E at Lagan Valley Hospital will have to phone first for an appointment to attend. Currently, Lagan Valley A&E operates from 8am - 8pm Monday to Friday.

Commenting on the Trust’s plans for a ‘Phone First’ A&E service, Unison Regional Organiser, Joe McCusker, said:

Lagan Valley Hospital

‘‘While it is appreciated that there are challenges in A&E at Lagan Valley Hospital, this appears to be an ill-conceived plan by the South Eastern Trust which will have an impact on patients, other overstretched A&E services and the ambulance service.

''Unison is not aware of any assessment of risk to the citizens of Lagan Valley if the Phone First plans go ahead, nor has a feasibility study been carried out on the plans.

‘‘There has been no public consultation. The people of Lisburn and Lagan Valley deserve better.”

Mr. McCusker added: ‘‘The Trust state that this is a temporary measure, however they have not specified a timeframe.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson spoke out against the alleged plans, commenting: ''I was very concerned to hear this proposal which I would find totally unacceptable.''

‘‘From past experience, when temporary measures are introduced by the Health Service, too often it becomes permanent.’’

Unison Down Lisburn Branch launched a campaign earlier this week opposing the South Eastern Trust’s alleged plans for a ‘Phone First’ A&E service, calling for an immediate halt to any moves to introduce the system.

The online petition, which had amassed 1,000 signatures on Tuesday afternoon, is in addition to lobbying local MLAs and a leaflet to ‘‘raise awareness among the public.’’

One user who had signed the petition commented: ''It's an A&E! It's in the name. Who is gonna ring for an appointment in that sort of situation? It is for accidents and emergencies.''

Sorcha Eastwood

Another stated: ''Disgraceful. I would like to see the person or persons responsible for this decision face public scrutiny. This should have been put under consultation with the people of Lisburn. It is after all our NHS and those who make these decisions work for us, so are accountable to us. People of Lisburn do not tolerate this.''

Unison Down Lisburn Branch also plan to hold a socially distanced demonstration outside Lagan Valley Hospital on Thursday 16 September.

However, the South Eastern Trust said in a statement: ‘‘Phone First is an initiative that is already in place in several hospitals across Northern Ireland. It aims to ensure patients get the best care and treatment in the quickest possible time. Where it has been introduced, it has proven to be successful and cut down on excessive waiting times.

‘‘No decision has been taken about the use of Phone First at Lagan Valley and any calls for plans to be halted are premature. Any decision will only be taken if it is shown to be in the interests of patients and staff.

‘‘Phone First does not mean that every patient must phone ahead before attending Emergency Departments.’’

Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also spoke out against the alleged plans, commenting: ''I was very concerned to hear this proposal which I would find totally unacceptable.

''We know already that many local people are having great difficulty in getting appointments with their local GP but now to compound that with some kind of telephone system for the emergency unit at the Lagan Valley Hospital is not something I think enhances the availability of primary health care services.

''With the new health centre soon to be opened at the Lagan Valley site I would have hoped we might have seen an enhancement of the service available rather then it being diminished.

''I have written an urgent note to the Chief Executive of the Trust to enquire why this (alleged) step (is being taken) as I believe it will add to the pressures on already overstretched services at the two main hospitals in Belfast and Craigavon.

''I want to see facilities at Lagan Valley made more accessible, not less accessible, and available to meet the healthcare needs of our local community and hope the Trust will pull back from this (alleged) decision. ''

Meanwhile, Alliance Councillor Sorcha Eastwood has called for a meeting of the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council health working group to discuss the growing crisis in the health service in the area amid the speculation, adding ''we all have a role to play in helping ease the pressures and resolving the situation.''

Cllr Eastwood continued: ''Our health service is under severe pressure and has been for some time. As elected representatives, we are dealing on a daily basis with those who can’t access GP services, or who are waiting on surgery or consultant-led appointments.

“Whilst it is the responsibility of the Department of Health to deliver on health outcomes, we all have a role to play in not only highlighting where problems exist, but also being constructive and engaging in conversations to move the situation forward and push for better situations for our constituents.

“That’s why I have called for a meeting of the Council’s health working group to see what can be done through collaborative working between local government, health trusts, and community and voluntary partners, as well as statutory agencies and the health and social board to discuss the real and urgent issue of disparity in accessing GPs, and also now the potential for changes to Lagan Valley’s emergency department.

“We all made a commitment to transforming the health service and while that is needed, we need to ensure changes are made in a constructive and informed way. I will continue to push for better delivery and access to healthcare services for all in Lagan Valley.”