Muted welcome for £300 million health investment
A TOTAL of £300 million has been secured for the Northern Ireland health service following the DUP-Conservative deal - with the lion's share used to tackle spiralling waiting lists and the rollout of a massive reform programme.
The stalled Bengoa review, which was published last October and recommended an urgent shake-up of existing structures, will be fast-tracked with a £100m investment dedicated to "transformation" of the north's NHS.
Overstretched mental health services have also been singled out with an additional £10m over the next five years while a further £50m will be used to firefight "immediate pressures" - with speculation the bulk will be spent on the private sector to tackle the waiting list crisis.
Trade unions last night gave a cautious welcome to the investment amid concerns about how the north's health chiefs would manage the money as one leading doctor warned that "we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past".
Dr Tom Black, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), said it was time for "brave decisions" and that the multi-million health monies must not be "squandered".
"If we do the same thing we've done everytime before by throwing money at waiting lists we'll make the wrong decision," said Dr Black.
"The biggest part of the transformation will be to consolidate services as recommended in Bengoa so that our resources aren't spread too thinly.
"We've recently had the Department of Health reducing GP budgets and cutting training for specialist nurses. We need our politicans back in the assembly with a health minister and agreed budget."
More than £170 million has been paid to private healthcare firms to slash the north's waiting lists since 2012.
Despite the private bill, waiting lists are now at their worst in more than a decade with some patients waiting up to five years for hip operations while A&E waiting times breaches are hitting record highs across the entire NHS.
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in the north, said the £50m injection to tackle waiting lists by 2019 was a "drop in the ocean" but added that any financial investment "must be welcomed".
"The £100m being used to transform the service is very much needed as without it can do nothing in terms of developing more nurse-led services," she said.
"As we learned in the past week, the budget for the training of our nurses in specialisms such as district nursing and A&E is very small. We are also pleased to see extra resources for mental health as there are significant challenges in the sector."
Leading mental health charity, Action Mental Health, also welcomed the additional spend and urged politicians to restore power-sharing to urgently roll out improvements.
"We are particularly keen to move forward quickly on the establishment of a mental health advocate or champion, to ensure that we have a whole Executive response to the challenges of adequately dealing with Northern Ireland's long term mental health underinvestment," said David Babington, the charity's chief executive.