Healthcare news

Health service crisis will deepen with Stormont fallout

Plummeting NHS staff morale and increasing sickness absence will not be aided by the ongoing uncertainty.
Seanín Graham

HOSPITAL waiting lists are likely to get worse if Stormont civil servants are left to operate with reduced funds.

With more than 240,000 patients already facing delays for their first consultant appointment, doctors are warning of the inevitable failure to maintain services if no budget is agreed.

In addition, plummeting NHS staff morale and increasing sickness absence will not be aided by the ongoing uncertainty.

The Department of Health receives the lion's share of the Executive's annual budget, with almost £5 billion awarded in 2016/17.

As of yesterday, the north has 2,000 unfilled nursing jobs.

Last October, following the release of the Bengoa report on health service reform, its author highlighted the need to urgently make changes.

In tandem with Professor Bengoa's work, Sinn Féin's health minister Michelle O’Neill published a review in which she set target dates for a shake-up of services.

Top of Ms O’Neill's agenda was the waiting list crisis, with a January deadline set for the introduction of a new strategy. The ensuing political fallout led to the shelving of the plan.

A former head of the British Medical Association who has worked with 25 different health ministers since the 1980s believes a direct rule minister is unlikely to make the radical improvements required.

Dr Brian Patterson also expressed concern that senior civil servants and Stormont politicians are not willing to bring about necessary changes because they are 'unpalatable'.

"Unless our health service is reformed it is doomed," Dr Patterson told The Irish News last night.

"I’ve been around a lot of direct rule ministers and with the exception of Shaun Woodward, very few are willing to make changes."

But a veteran GP took a counter view, claiming the intervention of a Tory minister is the very thing the north's health service needs to 'light the fuse'.

"An English minister is not going to want another review - they will introduce what is unpalatable for politicians, patients and those who work in the service. This is what needs to happen," said Dr George O’Neill.

Meanwhile, Janice Smyth of the Royal College of Nursing spoke of her members' concerns about the safety of patients due to unfilled posts.

Whatever the political outcome, it is clear that a devolved or direct rule minister will have a difficult role, with many unpopular and urgent decisions to make in coming months.

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