At the first public meeting held to try and fight against the threat to the South West Acute Hospital’s (SWAH) emergency surgery, the lack of political representation drew the ire of many in the room.

More than 50 people were in attendance at Fermanagh House last Thursday night as the campaign got under way. Organised and chaired by Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, CCLA, the meeting heard from SDLP Councillor Paul Blake and health campaigner, Helen Hamill.

Aside from Councillors O’Cofaigh and Blake, Councillor Adam Gannon (SDLP) and Councillor Eamon Keenan (Independent) were the only two other political representatives present that evening.

The meeting began with a video showing a recent Council Health and Social Care Services sub-committee meeting where, at the end of the recording, Western Trust Chief Executive Neil Guckian read out a statement around the fragility of emergency surgery at the SWAH.

In the meeting, he also said he wanted to be upfront with the public and he asked for everyone to work constructively with them [the Western Trust]. However, the meeting was then moved into confidential matters for further discussion away from the public eye.

Councillor O’Cofaigh said the public meeting was the first step in action to fight against what he said was no surprise in terms of the potential withdrawal of emergency surgery.

He claimed that this was all part of a plan to close rural acute hospitals.

“What is clear, there is a crisis in our emergency surgery,” said Councillor O’Cofaigh. “They [Western Trust] have not made a decision yet, but they are making everyone aware that, potentially, that this is something they have planned for in the near future.

“I have to say this is not a surprise. It certainly is not a surprise.”

Councillor O’Cofaigh said he felt the withdrawal of emergency surgery was the first step in the loss of acute services at the SWAH, and said the message of public opposition had to be spread.

“We need to get this message out into every corner of our community and we need to find ways to make people understand.

“This isn’t being raised because it isn’t going to happen. This is being raised because it is going to happen.”

‘Domino effect’

Helen Hamill spoke of the knock-on effect of having no emergency surgery and without it there would be a “domino effect” for other departments at the SWAH. The Trust denies this will be the case. Speaking after the meeting, Mrs. Hamill said she believes rural lives will be lost if there is no longer emergency surgery at the SWAH. “I think everybody has agreed it needs to be an immediate united response that rural lives matter.

“That our access to emergency surgery is affected by ambulance access, hospital staffing and bypassing a hospital with the facilities and the quality that the SWAH offers is of no logical use to anybody.”

Mrs. Hamill added that this challenge would be the most difficult one to save services the people of Fermanagh have faced.

Local solicitor Reggie Ferguson called for more honesty from the Western Trust and Health Department.

“Why is it always the SWAH they can’t get doctors to? Is Fermanagh such a horrible place?” he questioned. “There needs to be a bit of honesty,” he said calling for meetings with the Trust and Health Minister Robin Swann.

All in attendance were in agreement that action needed to be taken, and needed to be done in a succinct and focused fashion.

Those present also voiced their anger at the broader lack of political representation at the meeting. The Impartial Reporter reached out to a number of parties about their non-attendance.

In response, DUP MLA Deborah Erskine said: “Due to another diary commitment elsewhere in the constituency, I could not attend the public meeting.

“There are workforce pressures which are impacting the SWAH currently, and these are having knock-on effects. It is absolutely vital that efforts to recruit consultants continue and to increase the workforce across emergency general surgery at the SWAH.

“I met with the Chief Executive of the Western Trust earlier in the week and will continue to liaise with the Trust and the Health Minister.

“We should all share the desire to ensure the focus is kept on staff recruitment and working to deal with the issues we face.”

A UUP spokesperson responded that its political representatives “were not aware of a public meeting held regarding the current status of emergency surgery at SWAH”.

They continued: “The UUP councillors who sit on the Council’s Health Committee have met with Western Trust officials.

“Tom Elliott MLA has also met last week with Western Trust officials to discuss the serious situation regarding emergency surgery at SWAH.

“The UUP political representatives will of course continue to campaign to keep emergency surgery at the SWAH.”

Sinn Féin had not responded by the time of going to press.