A public consultation is to be launched on the proposed closure of Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Co Antrim.
Health Minister Robin Swann said any closure would be on a “carefully planned and phased basis” and only after intensive engagement with patients and families.
The hospital, for adults with severe learning disabilities and mental health needs, has been at the centre of the UK’s largest police investigation into the alleged abuse of vulnerable adults.
A public inquiry is also currently ongoing into allegations of abuse at Muckamore.
Mr Swann said: “I announced on September 29 that I was considering the future role of the hospital.
“I have carefully considered the options and I believe that signalling a clear intention now to close the hospital would help to support and accelerate the direction of travel to deliver on the long-standing policy aim – the resettlement of long-stay patients into appropriate community facilities and support.
“Muckamore Abbey Hospital has been providing services for people with a learning disability since it opened in 1949.
“As I have acknowledged previously, there have been serious failures of care at the hospital, leading me to initiate the public inquiry that is now underway.
“The model of care represented by large hospital facilities of this kind is outdated and inadequate.
“That’s why the overarching policy direction for people with learning disabilities has been to support long-stay residential patients to resettle into community-based facilities, where they can live as part of their local community.
“Much work has been done to support people with learning disabilities to live independently within community settings – with only 35 remaining in the hospital today.”
The minister added: “I want to make it very clear that any final decision to close the hospital will involve a defined timescale for closure, and will be accompanied by a plan, co-produced with current hospital patients and their families, which will clearly set out how the services currently provided on the Muckamore Abbey Hospital site will be delivered in agreed alternative settings.
“Equally, I want to be clear that any decision to close the hospital will not affect either of the investigative processes currently under way into events at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.
“Both the criminal investigation and the MAH Public Inquiry will continue according to their planned schedules.
“I am very aware that any decision to close Muckamore Abbey Hospital may be distressing for current and prospective patients at the hospital, for their families and carers, and for staff at the hospital.
“The Health and Social Care system as a whole is working to develop a service that will respond effectively to the continuing need for assessment and treatment through small in-patient units and modelling a safe community-based service that extends home treatment, peripatetic and crisis response.”
The consultation will close on January 24 next year.
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