The decision to close the 19-bed St Brigid’s Ward in Waterford’s St Patrick’s Hospital beggars belief and should be reversed, Labour Party leader Eamonn Gilmore said yesterday.

A petition calling for the plan to be scrapped was signed by 7,000 people locally and Mr Gilmore said he would be passing it on to Health Minister Mary Harney. Accompanied by Waterford Labour TD Brian O’Shea, he recently met with a delegation from the hospital and voiced astonishment that such desperately needed beds were being shut down. “It is clear to me the move is nothing short of a money-saving exercise that is being justified on spurious health and safety grounds”, he said.

“There is no doubt that both Waterford City and Waterford County require substantially more public beds for the continuing care of elderly patients. There is an extensive waiting list for St Patrick’s but equally there are patients who are in the short term contract beds in private nursing homes who are awaiting a public bed”, he reasoned.

“It is eminently reasonable to ask: if the proposed new 50 bed in the grounds of St Patrick’s is a priority project as claimed by the HSE, why then is it not being fast-tracked with the beds in St Brigid’s remaining in use until such time as the new unit is up and running?

“Officials of the HSE have stated that a total of 30 beds are to be acquired in the private sector in the Waterford Community Care Area, which will have the same clinical back-up as the patients in St Patrick’s get. But this is difficult to believe.

“There needs to be a lot more clarification on the health and safety issue and the HIQA standards, which in my view are merely being used as an excuse for closing down these public beds to be replaced by cheaper beds in the private sector. This is an exercise in privatising the Health Service.

“The HSE states that the provision of a new 50 bed unit is a priority, but their actions would belie this. It is totally unacceptable that the elderly patients of Waterford and South Kilkenny and their relatives are caused to suffer in this way and I am calling on the Minister to make sure that St. Bridget’s Ward remains open until such time as the alternative public long stay beds are available in the new 50 bed unit”.