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£30 million 'low impact' health service cuts rubber-stamped at meetings

Jemma Dolan, Sinn Fein MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone speaking at a protest taking place during the Western Health Trust savings consultation meeting held at the Foyle Arena in Derry on Friday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seanín Graham

SIMULTANEOUS meetings across the north's five health trusts yesterday led to £30 million worth of so-called 'low impact' cuts being sanctioned as part of a drive to balance their books.

Cutting administration costs, reducing hospitality expenses and increased telephone assessments for lower-risk patients were among the raft of proposals signed off by trust board members.

The meetings took place just two days after the Department of Health announced an extra £40m in autumn monitoring round funds are to be distributed across trusts to mitigate against the initial £70m proposed cuts.

There has been severe criticism of the proposals and the timing of the financial 'bailout', with trade unions and politicians questioning why the original plans were put on the table.

Frontline hospital staff say the measures, which included bed closures, axing of home help packages and reducing fertility treatment, created huge anxiety.

An emergency six-week consultation period - it is usually 12 - heightened tensions even further.

However, senior civil servants at the Department have repeatedly said they were legally obliged to break even on their budget and could not rely on funds being diverted from other Stormont departments.

Despite being open to the public, turnout at yesterday's meetings was relatively low compared to previous trust 'savings plans' events with union representatives and politicians being most visible.

The north's biggest trust, the Belfast trust, said it planned to stand down all its major proposals with the exception of a plan to replace costly drug treatments with cheaper alternatives.

This measure will now be passed to the Health and Social Care Board and Department for "further consideration".

Cuts that will go ahead in the Belfast trust to enable them to shave £13m of their budget include reduced spending on management costs, course and conferences, travel and other 'discretionary spend'. Savings will also be made through car parking following the transfer of a PFI scheme over the next two years.

Meanwhile, the South Eastern trust will also press ahead with cuts to some locum staff - who will be replaced by in-house workers - and the slowing of the transfer of services to a new ward block in the Ulster hospital in Dundonald.

Car parking charges will also be introduced at Ards hospital site.

The Southern health trust, which had very few proposals that impacted adversely on frontline patients but must still make cuts of £6m, said it had to review a decision on how it distributes 'community aid' equipment such as Zimmerframes, commodes and crutches.

Health chiefs in the Northern trust also said they had shelved all their 'major impact plans' including the closure of multiple beds in Whiteabbey hospital. However, they said the exception was the proposals to increase car parking changes at Antrim Area hospital and Causeway hospital in Coleraine. If the hiked fees are introduced next month, it will make the trust £75,000 by the end of March next year.

The car parking plan must now go before the Board and Department.

Cuts at the Western health cuts include 'significant vacancy controls' in administration and corporate jobs, while there will be a severe tightening of budgets for goods and services. Controversial plans to close one of Derry's two remaining nursing homes will not go ahead.

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