Michelle O'Neill defends plans to transform health service against MLAs' criticisms
Ambitious plans to transform Northern Ireland's struggling health service will not be shelved, the health minister has vowed.
Michelle O'Neill was forced to deflect criticism from Opposition MLAs during a debate in the Assembly, batting away claims her roadmap for change lacked detail, costs and failed to address concerns around uncertainty and delay.
She said: "I am determined that Delivering Together is not put on a shelf and forgotten about but it is used as intended as the roadmap for transformation.
"As the health minister I will lead this work with energy, with passion and with pace."
The minister's blueprint was in response to an independent analysis of the under-pressure system by a panel of experts led by Dr Raphael Bengoa.
The closure of hospital buildings is not envisaged in the action plan, but there will be a restructuring of the services provided by the network of existing facilities.
She added: "We all realise that change cannot happen without investment. Investment does not only take the form of pounds and pence but it is also about political and system-wide leadership.
"All of us have an important role to play as we embark on this journey. I will not shy away from difficult conversations and decisions.
"I would ask all members of this House to match my resolve, delivering together I believe we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our HSC into a world class service."
Last week, the minister launched a public consultation exercise on the criteria to be used when making key decisions around the reconfiguration of healthcare services
It will run longer than the normal eight weeks to take account of the Christmas period and will include a series of meetings across Northern Ireland.
UUP health spokeswoman Joanne Dobson said that while she supported reform, the minister must provide better clarity.
She said: "So far we have a 12-month timeline for a 10-year plan with budgets at worst for one year and at best for three or four.
"If I can make one plea to the Executive today it would be this.
"Bring forward the detailed and costed plans for reform, back them up with a long-term budget as has happened in other regions."
Later, the Upper Bann MLA added: "The future holds many challenges for our people - not least from type two diabetes, liver cirrhosis, lung and heart diseases and, of course, cancer, but the past shows a litany of failed opportunities to support and strengthen our health service.
"I therefore urge the minister to tell us the how, the when and the where so that we can lift public uncertainty, begin addressing the waiting time crisis and deliver better health outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland."