Northern Ireland

‘Our hospitals cannot survive this’ - Senior medic calls Stormont budget ‘a mortal blow’ for NHS

Dr David Farren chairs the BMA’s NI Consultant Committee and said the public deserved honesty about where the health service was heading

Dr David Farren is chair of the BMA's Northern Ireland Consultant Committee.
Dr David Farren is chair of the BMA's Northern Ireland Consultant Committee.

A senior medic has warned that the current Stormont budget will be “a mortal blow” for the NHS as a free at point of access service.

Dr David Farren is the chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Consultant Committee (NICC).

Reacting to Tuesday’s budget debate, which the UUP voted against, Dr Farren commented: “Very important that all people in NI realise that the current budget, as realised yesterday, will be a mortal blow for a free at point of access health service.

“This is not scaremongering, it’s informing people of the facts of the matter.”

On Tuesday, Assembly members backed the budget but Health Minister Robin Swann, who stepped down on Wednesday, and his UUP colleagues voted against, stating it would cause “irreparable” damage to the health service.

Mr Swann’s successor, Mike Nesbitt, has called for MLAs to delay the vote by weeks to allow for the potential of an extra £300m of Treasury funding in the June monitoring round.

The health service has currently been allocated more than half of the Executive’s £14.5bn budget.

Last month, the Executive had debated how to spend £1bn of uncommitted funds.

Mr Swann had bid for all of this money, but in the end received just over £500m.

Sinn Féin’s Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald warned that not passing the Assembly budget before the summer recess would risk departments running out of cash, delaying important decisions and the Treasury withdrawing an offer to write off £559m of debt.

An assessment of the new budget from the Department of Health did not attempt to put a positive spin on the situation, warning of a “cumulative catastrophic impact” on the health and social care system and that there would be “no provision” for 2024/25 pay settlements, meaning industrial actions were likely to continue.

Junior Doctors  on the picket line at the RVH in Belfast on Wednesday.
Junior doctors in Northern Ireland have begun a walkout over pay.
The full 48-hour full stoppage – from 7am on Wednesday to 7am on Friday – will see doctors withdraw their labour from hospitals and GP surgeries across Northern Ireland in search of an improved pay deal.
The Department of Health has warned there is "no provision" in the budget to meet pay demands, meaning industrial action like last week's walkout from junior doctors will continue. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

Speaking to the Irish News, Dr Farren said it was now routine for hospitals to issue warnings they were over capacity.

“We used to only see that in the winter, it’s now all year round.

“We literally have patients waiting on trolleys in hospitals, patients waiting in hospital to get out into social care.”

With a balance of patient flow only just maintained, he said the budget shortfall could mean reducing beds by “a large hospital’s worth” of around 400.

“The system simply cannot survive that, that will result in longer delays. We already have massive waiting lists for elective surgeries like hip replacements because we have to prioritise red-flag surgeries like cancer treatments.

“But if we follow the current budget, even red-flag surgeries are not going to be performed.”

He said the new Health Minister Mike Nesbitt would effectively have to decide which services to stop providing.

“The onus is on our elected representatives to be speaking to the public, saying the health service as you know it – free at the point of access – will have to stop services.

“Decisions that might have to be made could be if a potentially life saving surgery is worth going ahead with.”

Dr Farren said his own mother has waited five years for a hip replacement, but couldn’t go ahead with the surgery this month after breaking her wrist.

“That’s five years of painkillers and restricted mobility. She’s obviously less fit to have the surgery now.

“I’ve had surgeons telling me they’re operating on patients where, if they had their operation earlier on the waiting list, their outcome would have been so much better.

“If your job is to operate on people with cancers, that’s completely demoralising.”

With climbing vacancy rates, he said hospital staff were working over and above their contracted hours.

“Consultants in the Republic can easily double or more their salary by increasing their commute.

“So we wonder why the system isn’t working and people are leaving. This budget is another death blow and have serious concerns as to whether the health service can survive this.”

Looking forward, he said that agreeing a budget was better than nothing “but only marginally” as it was effectively a decrease in money.

Calling for reports on health reform in Northern Ireland to be implemented, he said short-term measures could mean reliance on the private sector before more staff could be hired.

In addition, he said more cross-border services could provide a more cost-effective model.

While hoping the next Westminster government will provide more funding, he noted that Northern Ireland’s waiting lists were still bad when Labour was last in power 14 years ago.

“We need to stop talking about how bad we are and actually start doing something about it.”