I am continuing my discussions with the Republic of Ireland's Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly TD, to explore whether it will be possible to establish a two-centred paediatric and congenital cardiac services model on the island of Ireland, to be located in Belfast and Dublin. My overriding concern is the safety of those very vulnerable children and obtaining the best possible treatment and care for them. I am aiming to make my final decision on the future arrangements for this service as soon as possible.
I had hoped to be in a position to make my announcement this week, but discussions are ongoing. I think that people should not underestimate how difficult this process has been and the challenges involved. We need everybody to sing off the same hymn sheet, and we are working very hard to achieve that. Hopefully, we are very close to getting there. I will bring the information to the House and to the public as soon as I can. I trust that that will be very soon. As I indicated, I had hoped to do so this week. I do not believe that it should, necessarily, be much longer, and we really need to get that message out to the people who have real and genuine concerns and, obviously, real needs.
Clearly, it is not feasible for Northern Ireland to have a stand-alone service. I think most people recognise that we do not have the sort of numbers going through the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children to make that feasible. Therefore, we need to work with others on the delivery of that service. Do we look to England, Scotland or the Republic of Ireland? Perhaps it will be a mix. Those involved in some of the most complex cases, whether they are in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, leave the island to travel to England because of the complexity of the operations required. Others would be best suited to Dublin. However, I believe that there is an opportunity for us to retain services in Belfast, which is what we have been arguing for and seeking to achieve. However, the services provided must be safe and sustainable, and it is our challenge to ensure that. There has been massive improvement in the delivery of congenital cardiac care, including surgery, which is carried out very safely. We need to ensure that whatever we offer in Northern Ireland meets the same safety standard as that offered anywhere else. We cannot fall short of that. Ensuring that standard of safety is one of the key elements that we are working to achieve.
The subject is causing deep worry, anxiety and distress to parents. I sense the Minister's frustration today with the process and at not being able to make a formal decision. Will he outline to the House the obstacles or concerns that mean that he is not able to do so?
I need cooperation from everyone involved. If surgeons in Dublin are to take up the role, I need their cooperation. If they are not prepared to help us, I need the cooperation of surgeons from another centre. I do not underestimate our ask of the surgeons in Dublin. I am asking a lot of them, so it is not unreasonable that they do not immediately jump up and say, "We want to facilitate Minister Poots and his request". We need to recognise that, if they agree to assist us, they will be taking on a major challenge and will need our respect.
We will continue the negotiations, which are at a tentative stage. I trust that we will be able to work our way through them so that we can report to the Assembly very soon.
As of 9 December, when Professor Wood completes his work in Belfast, there will be no paediatric cardiac surgeon in Belfast. Does the Minister agree that there is a real danger of many of the specialist children's services starting to unravel and that we have only a short, critical window in which to act?
I am very well aware of the short and critical window. The service was under pressure before Professor Wood announced his intention to move on. We have advertised for a replacement, and we are very grateful for the interest that has been shown. We will make every effort to fill his position. It is a big ask to get someone of Professor Wood's standing, and we have to be realistic about that. It may be that the person will require further training, which makes it all the more essential that we liaise with a centre that has all the skills and expertise that will allow us to develop our staff in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.