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Axe finally falls on Health and Social Care Board

The main offices of the Health and Social Care Board in Linenhall Street, Belfast
Seanín Graham

HUNDREDS of staff at the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board were said to be left "reeling" over a decision to abolish the powerful body.

DUP minister Simon Hamilton made the shock announcement at a health trust leadership conference in Ballymena on Wednesday, citing the multiple layers of bureaucracy in NHS as a major factor.

"My own observations and experience are that we have too many layers in our system," he said.

"What I am signalling is an end to the current way we commission healthcare in Northern Ireland.

"It has not worked and arguably is never going to work well in a small region like ours."

A detailed private briefing was delivered to Board staff by its chief executive Valerie Watts on Wednesday afternoon - although the news had broken in the media at breakfast time.

The shake-up will lead to the north's six health trusts having more responsibility for how services are planned, while the Department of Health will also have more accountability.

The Public Health Agency will remain but with altered functions.

Prior to this, the department's main function was to direct policy - but Mr Hamilton said he will now assume more of a "leadership" role after serious concerns were raised in an independent probe about who was actually in charge of the north's health service.

A "panel of experts" is also to be appointed to "redesign" services.

While it is understood assurances were given by Ms Watts in the confidential meeting about job security - there will be some voluntary redundancies, but staff will largely be redeployed to the department, health trusts and PHA - morale among employees was to said to be "low" .

"We were told the board's senior management had only just learned about the scrapping of the organisation and how they had made repeated attempts at setting up meetings with the department," said one staff member.

Another said: “They told us that it was to be business as usual but that the Board would be wound up by 2017. Given that talks appear to have broken down between the Board and the minister, it doesn't inspire much confidence about our job futures or role.

"The minister made his announcement and a consultation is to take place now. Surely the consultation should have taken place first. The department’s handling of this has been shambolic."

Rumours about the demise of the HSCB have been circulating for months following the publication of a scathing report in January by Liam Donaldson, England's former chief medical officer, who recommended a radical overhaul of the north's health service - and specifically in the area of commissioning, the Board's main remit.

Set up in 2009 following the merger of four health boards as part of a massive public sector shake-up, it has come under increasing pressure over the past two years over its performance.

The board's central role is to assess the healthcare needs of the population and 'commission' services, which the health trusts then roll out.

Crucially, it must deliver an annual 'commissioning plan' outlining the money available to deliver key services and what services are required and achievable.

This year's plan, which should have published in April, is still on a shelf awaiting Mr Hamilton’s sign-off.

The DUP minister wasn’t available for interview yesterday but in his statement said: "From conversations I have had with staff it is clear that many feel that our commissioning system doesn’t work, they don’t understand it and, worst of all, it actually inhibits innovation.

"...The board has many talented people working within it, doing many important things to a very high standard. But the administrative structures created during the last Assembly term do not serve us well, especially as they blur the lines of accountability and weaken authority."

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