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Hamilton reveals NHS overhaul will take another decade

Health minister Simon Hamilton was grilled by the Stormont health committee on his reform programme
Seanín Graham

HEALTH minister Simon Hamilton has said it will take another 10 years to overhaul the Northern Ireland hospital system - due to the "far-reaching" nature of reforms required.

Last week, the DUP minister announced a decision to scrap the Health and Social Care Board - the organisation which effectively manages the health service - as it was too bureaucratic.

Appearing before the Stormont health committee, Mr Hamilton said while dismantling the Board will be more immediate, the longer-term shake-up of the entire service "will take a lot longer".

He outlined plans to set up an expert clinical panel "within weeks" to assess the type of change needed, with a report to be delivered by next June.

The former finance minister also revealed he planned to lobby his political colleagues for a "substantial uplift" in terms of extra money for his budget - but refused to divulge how much the north’s cash-strapped health service required.

"I used to play this game on the other side of the net…it wouldn’t be advantageous if I started revealing my hand now," he said.

Despite an annual budget of £4.7 billion, the health service is facing some of its worst ever pressures with waiting lists now among the worst in Europe and a steady drip of high-profile care failings over the past three years.

Mr Hamilton admitted that he "didn’t think we’re getting the best" out of the healthcare budget.

Sinn Féin’s Maeve McLaughlin, the committee chair, pressed the DUP minister about the "sizeable" 10-year time period to implement change and raised concerns about the further "erosion" of public confidence in the sector.

"I have no desire to let this drift, I want to start moving on this. I accept we all get frustrated with the processes," he said.

The DUP minister added: "We will require timetabling and investment…and need to go into this with our eyes wide open. This will take a considerable amount of time. It will take five to 10 years to become a reality…there will be tough choices but we will see the benefit of these choices."

Earlier this year, an independent report by former English chief medical officer Liam Donaldson recommended slashing or downgrading the north’s 10 acute A&E hospitals in half due to the small population.

The proposal has been mooted for more than a decade in different expert reviews – but has always proved unpopular with politicians, especially prior to elections.

Mr Hamilton insisted yesterday that closing hospitals was "not on his agenda".

"I believe there is a role for the smaller, local hospital. In the future, their role will change and they will take the pressure of the bigger hospitals."

Several members also questioned the minister on the future of a reform programme launched four years ago, known as Transforming Your Care (TYC).

The multi-million pound project has been dogged by criticism over its rollout.

Mr Hamilton said he was "acutely aware" of the negative publicity surrounding TYC but downplayed the significance of the programme, likening it to a "journey" and referred to its 99 recommendations as having a more "cultural" slant.

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