Derry families and campaigners joined hundreds of people from across Northern Ireland at the weekend in a rally aimed at protecting the future provision of children’s heart surgery at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
The protesters assembled at the hospital where children who have undergone treatment for congenital heart disease met clinicians and public representatives before marching to the Health & Social Care Board offices in the city centre.
Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in Northern Ireland with some 250 births per year and just under 200 operations and interventions on babies, teenagers, children and adults taking place here each year.
Sarah Quinlan, from Children’s Heartbeat Trust, said: “This march was a clear demonstration to our Health Service commissioners that the future safety of children in Northern Ireland relies on the maintenance of heart surgery at the Children’s Hospital in Belfast.
“Any steps to remove emergency and planned surgery to England would place lives at risk as well as placing immeasurable emotional and financial strain on families.
“The message today from doctors, nurses, parents and children to the Health Service commissioners is that their focus should be to ensure this happens through the strengthening of provision in Belfast as part of an all-Ireland surgical network.
“This issue affects from Derry and from every part of Northern Ireland.”
A public consultation on the future of children’s heart surgery ended in December.
Campaigners want Health Minister Edwin Poots to save and enhance paediatric cardiac services.
Mr Poots is expected to announce his decision at the end of February.
Conal McDevitt, from the SDLP, who attended the rally, said not allowing the centre to remain open and grow would be a “disaster” for children in Northern Ireland.
“It would put us at a severe disadvantage and it would be dangerous,” he said. “I would appeal to the minister not to do that.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs, who was also at the rally, said other services could be affected.
“If this element of surgery is lost other specialist surgery which is related to it may also be endangered and we may lose full services in Belfast for our children,” he said.
“We believe it’s vital that the full services remain in Belfast for the benefit of everyone.”