Michelle O'Neill: Stormont must be restored to implement health reforms

Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Mal McCann

STORMONT must be restored to tackle the crisis in the health service, Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill has said.

Ms O'Neill, who was health minister before Stormont collapsed in January last year, said the service was "on its knees".

Speaking after revelations a patient was forced to wait 49 hours in A&E over the Christmas period, Ms O'Neill said the health service must be reformed and the recommendations of her Delivering Together plan, which was announced before the collapse of power-sharing, must be implemented.

"For the first time ever I was able to secure political consensus for the plan. All parties need to stay focused on the plan instead of using the current political impasse to score political points," she said.

Ms O'Neill accused other parties of "using the health service as a political football".

"So I'm appealing to all parties to support the continued transformation of our health service," she said. "And I am making a direct appeal to the DUP to end the blockade of basic rights and allow us all to get back to the essential work of government."

However, DUP MLA Paula Bradley accused Ms O'Neill of putting a stand-alone Irish Language Act over reform of the health service.

"Legislation for languages or cultural matters could have been advanced the same way any bill would be on the floor of the assembly," she said.

"Yet, Sinn Féin has stalled the assembly because they want legislation agreed first and then debated on the assembly floor. Regardless of how legislation is dealt with, it is madness to allow a disagreement about Irish language legislation to hamper key reforms in our hospitals."

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs warned that the coming three months will prove even more difficult for health staff as winter continues to bite.

"Every year Northern Ireland faces these pressures with growing intensity and even though the coming of winter is entirely predictable, the demands on local hospitals are still regularly described as unexpected or unplanned," she said.

"Until the shortfall between demand for services and the capacity of the local system to cope is resolved, we are continuing to condemn ourselves to a never ending cycle of hospital crises."

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan said the scale of problems in the health service was "alarming" and called on health bosses to explain why waiting time targets are being missed.

"Its important that lessons are learned that can be applied to prevent a repeat of these situations, particularly it is important if we are going to deliver effective transformation," he said.

However, he said healthcare reforms cannot be implemented without a devolved government.

"A rights based society requires the delivery of healthcare rights too," he said.

"The solutions for health are not easy, but it is our job and our responsibility to try to find them. That is why the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for the immediate resumption of political talks amid the health crisis. Others need to stop hiding behind their press offices and come out behind the SDLP and support the resumption of formal talks. Patients cannot wait."

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