DUE to ongoing staffing issues within the Neonatal Unit at the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH), only a third of beds are available for newborn babies.

Following a number of questions put to the Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT) by this newspaper, it was confirmed that only two out of the six beds commissioned to the unit are available to “provide emergency care to babies born in the SWAH, and [to] provide stabilisation and transfer to another neonatal unit for ongoing specialist care if required”.

The Neonatal Unit currently provides emergency care to babies, stabilisation for those that need transfer to another unit for ongoing care, and babies who require a short period of special care who are cared for at the SWAH between the Neonatal Unit and Maternity .

A WHSCT spokesperson said: “Any baby that requires ongoing neonatal care will be assessed and those that require short-term care can remain on the unit.

"However, those that require a higher level of care will be transferred to another unit. A total of six babies were transferred to other Neonatal Units during the period October 1 to December 21, 2021.

"All of these babies required a higher level of care and would always have been transferred accordingly, regardless of the current situation."

In relation to staffing for the unit, the spokesperson continued: “Staffing levels within [the] Neonatal [Unit] at the SWAH has been and remains an issue.

"Despite actively trying to recruit, we have, to date, been unsuccessful in attracting and employing trained/experienced neonatal nurses to work in Enniskillen. We recognise that this is a regional and a national issue.

“The staffing crisis has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and short-term sick leave, with the Western Trust currently enduring significant staffing pressures across all services.”

Fermanagh and Omagh District Councillor Donal Ó’Cofaigh has been in contact with Trust Chief Neill Guckian about the issue, after he was contacted by staff and concerned parents about the status of the Neonatal Unit.

Donal OCofaigh, CCLA.

Donal O'Cofaigh, CCLA.

He described the current situation as a “very concerning development”.

Councillor Ó’Cofaigh continued: “The Neonatal Unit plays a vital role in support of our maternity services – as such, this [Neonatal Unit issue] represents a serious threat to the acute status of our hospital.

"Four years ago, the community in Fermanagh filled the largest hall in this county with a cross-community mobilisation that forced the WHSCT to backtrack on their plans to shut down our Neonatal Unit.

“While I recognise Covid-19 has not helped – it is simply not accurate that this situation has been caused by the pandemic.

"I have had ongoing correspondence with the previous WHSCT Chief Executive over the past two years highlighting ongoing issues with recruitment and retention in the Neonatal Unit.

“In particular, [correspondence discussed] management failures and identifying barriers to recruitment – barriers that I was able to demonstrate were not in play in Altnagelvin [hospital].

"My emails were repeatedly met with assurance that any difficulties were in hand, and would not lead to any diminution of services at the SWAH.

“And yet, without any consultation with the community at all, our Neonatal Unit has been reduced to two cots, providing only assessment of babies who are then sent elsewhere.

"I only found out this information after staff and parents informed me of the situation, and I passed on this information to local journalists, who assisted me to get answers.”

Councillor Ó’Cofaigh’s eldest daughter spent time in the Neonatal Unit in the old Erne Hospital, and he has seen first-hand the importance of the facility.

“Those in authority need to remember how the community here mobilised the last time our Neonatal Unit was threatened.

"We need them to commit to a date for the re-establishment of a fully-functioning Neonatal [Unit] at the SWAH, and to take the action needed to ensure it is realised,” he added.