Health service problems 'critical as 2,000 nursing posts unfilled'
Top medical professionals have warned that problems within Northern Ireland's health service have reached critical levels, with 2,000 nursing posts left unfilled.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association (BMA) have both raised serious concerns about the future of health and social care services in light of the political crisis.
Their concerns come after the Department of Health cancelled meetings with health and social care staff to discuss the delivery of proposed health service reforms that were to make the region's health system "fit for the 21st Century."
The reforms announced in October to improve services, cut waiting lists and care for an ageing population, have been thrown into uncertainty by the collapse of Stormont and lack of agreed budget.
RCN Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth said the health service is "full to capacity and staff cannot work any harder."
She warned that there are "upwards of 2,000 nursing vacancies in Northern Ireland when you take into consideration hospitals, community and independent nursing homes".
"Nurses are working more and more hours and this pressure is causing stress and making staff unwell.
"Nurses are already broken but what is most frustrating about all of this is that we have been warning this would happen for years," she added.
Ms Smyth said it is essential that the proposals set out in the October report, Delivering Together, are implemented.
"It is essential that we now press on with the reform and modernisation of health and social care and that the new minister continues the momentum that Michelle O'Neill (former health minister) began.
"We congratulate Michelle on her appointment as leader of Sinn Fein within Northern Ireland but we will miss the energy, drive and commitment to working in partnership with nurses and other health staff that she demonstrated during her time as health minister.
"Our health and social care service is in crisis and implementing the minister's vision is the only way forward. This work must continue irrespective of the election and its outcome."
Dr John D Woods, chairman of the BMA's Northern Ireland Council, said: "The problems in our health service are currently at a critical point.
"In secondary care, we have spiralling waiting lists that are getting longer due to poor workforce planning and rising demand on services.
"The crisis in primary care with GP practices facing closure across the country is well documented."
He added: "We welcomed the publication of the health minister's vision for health in October past and we would urge that the momentum of this process is maintained."
A review into Northern Ireland's health service was commissioned in January last year by Stormont ministers seeking advice on how to improve services, cut waiting lists and care for an ageing population.
At the time Professor Rafael Bengoa, chairman of the expert panel behind the review, said Northern Ireland faced "a stark choice".
"It can either resist change and see services deteriorate to the point of collapse over time, or embrace transformation and work to create a modern sustainable service," he said.