Northern Ireland

Health minister announces plan to tackle Northern Ireland’s ‘shocking’ health inequalities

Mike Nesbitt has set out his plans for the health service over the next six months

Health Minister Mike Nesbitt has set out his plans for the next six months. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
Health Minister Mike Nesbitt has set out his plans for the next six months. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Health minister Mike Nesbitt has said tackling Northern Ireland’s “shocking” health inequalities must be at the heart of reforming services.

Setting out his plans for the health service over the next six months at a media briefing on Wednesday, Mr Nesbitt detailed a ‘Live Better’ initiative, designed to bring targeted health support to communities which need it most.

This will include an uptake in health screening and vaccination, mental health support, nutritional advice and increased opportunities to be physically active.

Angry that women in Northern Ireland’s most deprived communities lived 14 fewer years in good health than in the most well-off areas, he said this was “simply not acceptable in a first world country.”

Other suggestions include appointing a Minister for Children and an arms length body for children and families.

A major hospital shake up would divide existing sites into local, general, area and regional hospitals - meaning patients could have to travel longer for specialised treatment.

A public consultation paper on the matter, ‘Towards a Hospital Network’ is due this summer.



A three-year strategic plan for health and social care will also be published this autumn, covering the rest of the current Assembly mandate.

With an aim to “reboot” health reform, Professor Rafael Bengoa (the international health expert who led a major 2016 report into reforming the health service) will return to Northern Ireland in the autumn for a conference and other engagements.

“I believe Professor Bengoa will help reboot the public debate on health reform,” which Mr Nesbitt said had become “misconstrued” as a cost cutting programme or a plan to close hospitals.

“This is damaging the objective of genuine reform which is to deliver better outcomes.”

Health Minister Mike Nesbitt speaks to the Media at Castle Buildings.
PIC COLM LENAGHAN
Health Minister Mike Nesbitt speaks to the Media at Castle Buildings. PIC COLM LENAGHAN

Speaking to the Irish News, Mr Nesbitt was asked how he could persuade elderly people in rural areas to travel further under his plans to change hospital services.

“Transport is probably going to be the single biggest issue for reassuring people. It’s all very well for me to say I would rather travel 40 miles for the best possible treatment with a specialist,” he said.

“But if you don’t have easy access to get there and back, then it’s not much use to you. So I will be talking to Executive colleagues, particularly in Infrastructure, how we do this better.”

Surprised by the high level of spend on taxis from the health service in recent years, he suggested a campaign to recruit more voluntary drivers that stepped away during the pandemic.

On the new Labour government’s health plans, he said he was impressed that the Health Secretary Wes Streeting reached out to the devolved administrations within hours and had accepted an invitation to visit Northern Ireland.

Health Minister Mike Nesbitt speaks to the Media at Castle Buildings.
PIC COLM LENAGHAN
Health Minister Mike Nesbitt speaks to the Media at Castle Buildings. PIC COLM LENAGHAN

Asked to clarify the lines he would not cross when dealing with a serious budget shortfall, he said: “If I analyse a cut that’s going to make something worse, then why am I going to do it?

“There was a proposal at one point to close an ICU bed. Closing that runs the risk of ultimate harm in my assessment.

“That’s the sort of thing I’m not prepared to do. I’m very focused on hospital flow.

“One of the first papers I looked at talked about cutting a million hours of domiciliary care.”

He said the backlog such a decision would create in discharging patients from hospital beds, admitting emergency and ambulance patients was unacceptable.

“I’m not going to anything that severely interrupts that flow in a way that causes real and serious and unnecessary harm to patients.”