Members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have unanimously agreed to write to Minister for Health Robin Swann MLA, outlining the serious risks to acute services at South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) due to a “workforce crisis and demanding a crisis approach”.

In a letter to council, Western Health and Social Care Trust Chief Executive Neil Guckian advised an internal review has been initiated around general surgery, through three phases.

The first is to address the sustainability of emergency general surgical services at both SWAH and Altnagelvin Hospitals to transition the current structure and governance to a unified Western Trust arrangement.

Phase Two will examine where elective surgery is carried out and if it should be at another facility in the Trust area, while Phase Three will look at uncommissioned capacity across the three hospital sites and seek support in attempting to address waiting list pressures.

While the review into emergency surgical provision is well underway, Mr Guckian pointed out: “The service is not sustainable in current form due to sub-specialisation within general surgery and ongoing recruitment difficulties. The network of Western Trust surgeons are reviewing options to agree a way forward with a clear focus ensuring no impact on other acute services. Elective care delivery remains our priority and the regional priority.”

Independent member Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh said: “It’s quite clear in my opinion this refers to emergency surgery at SWAH as not sustainable in its current form, meaning we are looking at the threat of the removal of emergency surgeries. That poses huge questions about where people will be transported, and how they are supposed to make it to alternative sites for emergency surgery. That is not acceptable and we have to take this extremely seriously. There are such moves right across Northern Ireland. We are seeing a crisis of considerable proportions. I worry if the ‘acute’ in SWAH will have any meaning in the coming year.”

Councillor Josephine Deehan, Independent, stated members should be concerned about acute services including surgery at SWAH as: “We’ve seen figures regarding vacancies of medical and nursing staff in the Western Trust, and ongoing difficulties is recruiting. The sustainability of services is dependent on staff. Neonatal services have really suffered due to a lack of suitably qualified nurses. We need to be very mindful of the review of services.”

Ulster Unionist Councillor Victor Warrington agreed with members comments but added: “We have to remember there’s still an empty ward in SWAH. Getting staff to come to the Western Trust area has been a big, big difficulty. I know any who do come thoroughly enjoy it and think this is a great area, which it is. We have a state-of-the art, modern hospital and we need to publicise and market that continually.”

He concluded: “We don’t want to lose our acute services from SWAH as the nearest would be Craigavon or Altnagelvin. If somebody needs urgent surgery, you don’t want to be travelling to either of those two.”

Party colleague Councillor Bert Wilson spoke of a doctor originally from Omagh who has two sons, now also both doctors, and: “If you were to give them £1,000 a week I don’t think they’d come to the countryside. They don’t want to come to Fermanagh or Tyrone at all. I know that for a fact. That’s the problem.”

Sinn Fein’s Councillor Kelly told members the Department of Health’s Workforce Strategy won’t be completed until 2026 having been ongoing since 2018.

She proposed writing to the Minister asking: “Why is this taking so long considering we are in such a crisis, based on the shortage of workers? We need a crisis approach to a workforce crisis. Four years more doesn’t suggest that the Department is looking at this as seriously as it should.”

This was seconded by party colleague Councillor Stephen McCann and passed unanimously.