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Michelle O'Neill: Reverse £1m cut to nurse training budget

Permanent secretary at the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly has ordered an emergency meeting today over controversial cuts to training for specialist nurses
Seanín Graham

AN emergency meeting will be held this morning to tackle the fallout from a controversial decision to axe funds to train specialist nurses - as the former health minister demands a u-turn on the cut.

The meeting was ordered by the most senior civil servant at the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, as speculation mounts over whether he will be forced to reverse the £1 million cut to Ulster University nursing training places announced last week.

In what are expected to be tense discussions, it is understood the chief executives from each of the north's health trusts may also be present after Mr Pengelly initially sought their advice on the consequences of the cut to their services.

Directors of nursing from the trusts will also be present.

With the collapse of power-sharing structures at Stormont and no ministers in place, the decision to withdraw the funding ultimately rested and had to be signed off by Mr Pengelly and his advisors.

But in a highly unusual intervention last night, former Sinn Féin health minister Michelle O'Neill called for the cut to be "reversed immediately", on the grounds it was at odds with her blueprint '2026 vision plan' for the future of the north's health service.

Ms O'Neill's comments come just days before a looming deadline to restore devolution and are being viewed as explicit criticism of the decision-making powers of her former most senior civil servants.

The north's Sinn Féin leader told the Irish News there was a "clear need" to increase the number of the healthcare staff to meet ever-growing demands - and the cuts flew in the face of this.

She added: "Cutting resources for specialist training for nurses goes against this.

"I have particular concerns that the commitments made in Health and Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together plan - namely the allocation of a district nurse and health visitors to every GP practice - is being abandoned by the Department of Health.

"This undermines efforts to deliver multi-disciplinary teams in primary care at a time when GPs are under increasing pressure.

"This cut should be reversed immediately."

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in the north, said last night she welcomed Ms O'Neill's intervention.

"Any attempt to reverse this cuts decision to the nursing and training budget is to be welcomed at a time when we need an increase not a decrease in funding," she said.

"I would also hope that a more considered approach is given in the future by the Department of Health as to how we support our care to patients."

The Department's decision to axe £995k from the Ulster University training fund for already qualified nurses for 2017/18 impacted on those wishing to pursue specialist careers in district nursing as well as school nurses and health visitors.

However, places for nurses working in hospitals who wanted to train in advanced life support and child life support for the most serious emergency cases were also hit.

The Department of Health last week said the cuts were the result of "very difficult decisions" that had to be made in the "current financial climate".

But Dr George O'Neill, a high-profile GP from Belfast, described the £1m money the Department was slashing as "small beer" in the context of an overall £5 billion budget and should be reinstated immediately.

"I hope the powers-that-be see sense today and realise the significant impact this will have not just on nursing but on the community at large."

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