Northern Ireland

‘I will not be approving catastrophic cuts’ - Minister backs warnings from health trusts over shrinking budget

Mike Nesbitt is opposing the Stormont budget which health leaders say will inflict ‘serious harm’ on the public

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Mike Nesbitt is Stormont’s new health minister
Ulster Unionist Party MLA Mike Nesbitt is Stormont’s new health minister (Liam McBurney/PA)

Health Minister Mike Nesbitt has backed a statement from Northern Ireland’s health trust chairs, who have warned Stormont’s budget will cause “catastrophic impacts” for patients.

With growing concerns that serious cuts to health and social care services will effectively have to start within weeks, the statement warned of “the very real potential for avoidable and serious harm being caused to people in our community who require our help, as a result of inadequate budgetary provision”.

The Stormont health budget for 2024/25 has been passed by the Assembly, but Mr Nesbitt and his predecessor Robin Swann have voted against it.

Mr Nesbitt commented: “I support this intervention from HSC Trust chairs. It’s important that everyone understands the scale of the budgetary pressures and the potential consequences for services and patients.

“I can again make clear that I will not be approving catastrophic cuts.”

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has declared a “national emergency” for the NHS across the UK, warning that patients are dying in hospital corridors.

This includes patients being left without access to oxygen and enduring intimate examinations in crowded areas.

Belfast GP Alan Stout, chair of the Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee (NIGPC), was asked on Monday if the NHS was simply trying to do too much.

He said that a pattern of reacting to crises rather than implementing the structural changes set out in the Bengoa report eight years ago was a massive problem.

“With the funding being so tight and our inability to reform, let’s be honest about it, we are now faced with this real crisis,” he told the BBC.

“The problem is what whenever we’re faced with crisis we make the wrong decisions and actually what fills me with fear more than anything else is what’s going to be targeted.”

He said these included services like elderly care which were already under considerable pressure.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the pressures highlighted by the health trusts would ultimately cost lives and criticised the Assembly for “ploughing ahead” with an inadequate budget.

He added: “We know the money does exist to invest in our health service, to invest in our health workers, to make sure these cuts aren’t pushed ahead.”

Ann Watt from the political think tank Pivotal said the health budget had dropped by 2.3%, despite a yearly increase in demand for services of 6%.

“It is not surprising we’re hearing these dire warnings,” she told the BBC, but said there was a “glimmer of hope” with an expected £200m to be divided among departments in the June monitoring rounds.

“We have a situation where we’ve got ever-increasing demand, ageing population, more treatments available and yet we’re cutting health funding.”

She said years of Conservative austerity also meant that if no further money was available, then Stormont leaders could be left with the “incredibly unpopular” option of raising revenue through measures like charges for water services, prescriptions, higher tuition fees and scrapping free transport for the over sixties.