Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Tuesday, 25 September 2012 13:02 UK

Paediatric Congenital Cardiac Services

The health minister told the assembly he preferred an all-island solution to the future of children's heart surgery in Northern Ireland, on 25 September 2012.

Replying to a motion sponsored by the health committee, Edwin Poots said he had been in discussions with his southern counterpart, Dr James Reilly.

He said he personally thought it would be to their mutual advantage to develop a clinical network across the island.

The minister said he was launching a public consultation with the aim of making a decision on the future model of services early in 2013.

Proposing the motion, committee chairwoman Sue Ramsey of Sinn Fein, explained that a recent review of paediatric congenital cardiac services had found that the service provided by the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was safe but not sustainable.

Ms Ramsey said the review was carried out under criteria developed for the assessment of services in England.

"Our health service should be assessed on our circumstances here," she commented.

The West Belfast MLA expressed concern at the practise of flying children to England for surgery, both for its effect on the patients and their families.

She called on the health minister to explore the possibility of further co-operation with Our Lady's Hospital in Dublin through talks with Dr Reilly.

Gordon Dunne of the DUP said the interests of the children must be the top priority .

"Congenital heart disease is one of the most common problems at childbirth in Northern Ireland," he added.

The UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson put it to Mr Dunne that the retention of services in Belfast should be a priority.

"We must broaden our horizons if the need arises," he replied.

Mr Dunne spoke about a meeting in his constituency where "mixed feelings" had been expressed about travel to Dublin, but he said that travel to England was not satisfactory for many families.

Ulster Unionist MLA Sam Gardiner said he was disturbed that "political overtones" were entering into the debate.

He called for an estimation to made of potential savings in health service bureaucracy before any dramatic changes took place.

Mr Gardiner said he wanted to explore all possible alternatives.

Conall McDevitt of the SDLP was critical of the time taken to conduct review.

He said it was "a gross inequality" that Northern Ireland's sick babies were expected to be transported by plane or helicopter when it was considered unacceptable for babies in England and Wales.

Mr McDevitt said the review's discussion with health authorities in the Republic amounted to "90 minutes on Skype".

Kieran McCarthy of Alliance said he would have liked to see the word "Belfast" included in the motion.

He admitted to "some cynicism about the whole exercise".

Mr McCarthy said parents were only given an hour to discuss their concerns with the review team.

"The review on which this report is based is highly flawed," he said.

In replying to the motion, Edwin Poots said he could provide reassurance on both its parts; the prioritisation of the needs of children and further exploration of an all-island solution.

He said he agreed with all the comments made by Mr McDevitt.

The motion was carried on an oral vote.

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