Reefton residents voiced their dismay amidst shouts of "bulls**t" at a protest last night at the sudden closure of the town's hospital aged-care wing, after some residents suddenly moved out of the area days earlier than was first announced.
A socially distanced crowd of about 250 gathered at King George Park and grew risible on hearing the West Coast District Health Board had already cleared Ziman House of its 10 residents. The DHB only confirmed the closure last Friday.
West Coast Primary Health Organisation member and former Buller deputy mayor Graeme Neylon, who convened the meeting, said some families knew they had until this Friday to make alternative arrangements for their loved ones, and were astounded to find yesterday they had been moved already.
"We need an explanation about why those assurances they had time, were taken away," Neylon told the crowd.
"I'm no cynic but it was interesting that they had been moved before the meeting."
Neylon said the board's actions were indefensible, not only for the affected families but those who had been caring for the residents for years.
"The management has let the front-lines down on this -- they have virtually been thrown under the bus," he said.
A visibly exasperated DHB chairman and former Labour MP Rick Barker, amidst calls from the crowd of "when are they coming home" and "bulls**t", said the target reopening was "by June".
"No one took this decision lightly... The clinical advice was that the people would be safer elsewhere. We are assured that they will get better levels of protection wherever they go."
Barker said the board followed advice of its medical officer of health and had no basis "to say he was wrong".
The board was committed to retaining and upgrading medical facilities at Reefton, but the nursing issue was "a recruitment problem".
Some tearful family members relayed their dismay at how their elderly relatives had already been uplifted by the DHB with no warning, and been taken to a place they did not know in Christchurch, three hours' drive away.
DHB general manager Phil Wheble said there would be "learnings" but the closure was "a last resort thing" considering Covid.
"If we haven't done the right thing in the right way, we acknowledge that," Wheble said.
"The clinical advice was it was a very vulnerable situation. We will definitely be working very hard to bring (the residents) back as soon as possible.
"One of the learnings here is how would we have done this better."
Barker said Reefton Hospital was "rock solid" but needed updating and work could be brought forward with residents now gone.
That drew shouts of derision from members of the crowd at neglect of the Reefton facility and the time the board had to plan.
The Reefton Hospital sign at the front of the facility was quietly changed last week to 'Reefton Health'.
Wheble said the board intended to retain the facility, but he did not specify how it would do this.
"One of the things we want to do, is look at having things up here operating sustainably."
Existing staff members would remain on the payroll but with "individual conversations" to be initiated by the board with staff "to see what they want to do".
The Greymouth Star understood the board decision was planned for some time, regardless of Omicron.
Speaking to the Greymouth Star last night a person close to the DHB said the decision was cynical and distraught.
The person, who the Star has chosen not to name, said the timing of the installation of new signs outside the hospital this week to rename it Reefton Health, and in tandem removal this week by the NZ Transport Agency of direction signs to Reefton Hospital from nearby State highway 6, suggested the board's "real intentions".
"It's been planned for a long time," the person said.
Barker called for locals to step up to partner with the DHB to "move things forward" in a working group approach.
However, Neylon pointed out volunteers would be bound by board confidentiality rules.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air