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No quick fix to hospital pressures, health minister Robin Swann says

Health Minister Robin Swann said the task of increasing health service capacity was not helped by the lack of a budget in Northern Ireland

There is no quick fix to the pressures being faced in hospitals, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

Mr Swann said that demands previously felt during winter peaks are now a “recurring theme” throughout the year.

He was speaking after health trusts across Northern Ireland warned that hospitals were facing extreme pressure due to the number of patients.

In one instance yesterday, an emergency department consultant at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry made a public appeal for help to ease pressure after admitting his staff were facing “dire straits”.

Mr Swann said: “This is not a problem that is unique to Northern Ireland.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged health systems that were already struggling under the weight of demographic change, budgetary limitations and staffing challenges.

“It is important to be honest with the public, these problems are long-standing and there is no quick fix. I would appeal to everyone to please use services appropriately.

“Get your Covid-19 and flu vaccination jabs if you are eligible and co-operate with hospital discharge processes to help free up beds for others.”

Mr Swann said the task of increasing health service capacity was not helped by the lack of a budget in Northern Ireland – a consequence of the Stormont crisis.

A budget for 2022/23 had not been agreed by the Stormont parties prior to the ministerial executive imploding in February.

Before that, ministers had agreed in principle that any new spending plan would need to allocate increased funding to the region’s crisis-hit health service.

In the absence of a functioning Executive, departmental funding is being distributed using emergency arrangements on the basis of last year’s budget settlement.

The minister said: “The longer-term challenge, as we all know, is to significantly increase capacity in the system though investment in people and technology and changing the way we deliver key services.

“That task is certainly not helped by the continuing absence of a Northern Ireland budget and the significant projected overspend facing my department.

“In a written statement to the Assembly in July, I said: ‘Not long ago, patients and staff in Northern Ireland had the promise of a multi-year budget, with the potential for longer-term planning and sustained investment.

“As things stand at present, we have no budget at all. Prolonging this state of affairs would be tantamount to sabotaging the rebuilding of our health service’.

“Unfortunately, that state of affairs has very much continued.”

Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride said nobody should underestimate the challenges facing the health service this winter.

He said: “I think it is fair to say that what we once euphemistically referred to as winter pressures are an all-round year phenomena.

“The pressure on our health service has been unrelenting throughout spring and summer and unfortunately, as we see every year, those pressures are likely to increase further as we move into the winter months.

“It is important that all of us recognise we are in this together, it is important that we recognise that frontline staff are under significant pressure. It is important that we work together as a system to try to alleviate those pressures.

“I can’t emphasise enough we have highly effective vaccines which will prevent severe flu, keep us out of hospital, keep us away from our general practitioners. That is the bit that is in our control.

“We will undoubtedly have to work together as one system this winter to face those challenges.”

The health service in Northern Ireland is also facing the prospect of widespread industrial action by healthcare staff this winter as several unions demand inflation-proofed pay increases.

Sir Michael said: “I recognise that staff have been under a huge amount of pressure, over the last couple of years. We have a very tired, very exhausted workforce.

“There are very real concerns across society about cost-of-living pressures. The health service and those working in it are no different than anyone else.

“I am confident that our frontline staff will put the care of their patients first and foremost.”

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