Northern Ireland

Robin Swann: Leading GP calls for smooth transition after ‘disappointing’ decision from health minister to step down ahead of general election

Robin Swann is to contest the South Antrim Westminster seat and has indicated Mike Nesbitt will replace him as health minister

Minister for Health Robin Swann has announced that vasectomy services will be switching to primary care in NI
Minister for Health Robin Swann has announced he will step down from the Executive before the next general election. (Liam McBurney/PA)

A leading GP has called Robin Swann’s decision to step down as health minister before the next general election “disappointing” and said there must be a smooth transition at a time when the health service is in crisis.

Mr Swann confirmed in an interview with the BBC’s Sunday Politics that he would vacate his role before starting to campaign for the South Antrim seat.

He also indicated that his party colleague Mike Nesbitt would be his likely successor, having already been appointed as his private secretary.

Dr Tom Black, British Medical Association’s NI Council chair, said they health service needs “consistency and focus.”

“There can be no doubt in anyone’s minds that the health services in Northern Ireland is in crisis,” he said.

“There are a number of ongoing disputes over pay, waiting lists are out of control, general practice is struggling, and doctors are burnt out, disillusioned and in many cases have had enough.

“We are therefore disappointed to hear that the health minister intends to step down at some point in the next few months to concentrate on standing in the general election. The health service needs consistency and focus.”

BMA Northern Ireland chair Dr Tom Black
BMA Northern Ireland Council chair Dr Tom Black

He said it was “vital” that there was a smooth transition from any incoming health minister, who would be able to work “at pace” to address the issues in health.

“There is currently a lot of uncertainty around timelines for the election and that added uncertainly will not help.”

Many had welcomed Mr Swann’s return to the health portfolio in February, having largely been considered a steady pair of hands during the pandemic.

There was also controversy as he confirmed at the time his intention contest the general election.

His challenges in 2024 have so far been relentless, from major pay disputes and strike action to reports last week showing massive increases in children’s waiting times (172% since 2016) and a crisis in primary care.

Northern Ireland also has the longest waiting lists in the UK.

While consistently setting out the proactive steps his department has been taking, his statements have had a theme of 2024 being about damage limitation and warnings that there is simply not enough money to do the job properly.

Before the new Stormont budget is set, he has called for an extra £1bn “just to stand still”.

During his BBC interview, he said: “My intention would not be to stay right up until polling day because purdah (the period between the announcement of an election and a new government taking office) will kick in and there will be other stages as well.

“So that decision will be made long before the election day is called, by my party leader.”

He added that it was “obvious” that some of the other Executive ministers from other parties would be campaigning for Westminster seats as well.

“One of the things we’ve done as a party, one of the things that I’ve done, we’ve actually come out and said it and been honest with the people,” he said.

He explained that the extra £1bn needed for the health budget was needed to honour pay settlements for this year and address pay claims for the coming year.

Sinn Féin's Liz Kimmins
Sinn Féin's Liz Kimmins chairs the Stormont Health Committee.

Sinn Féin’s Liz Kimmins, Stormont’s Health Committee chair, called Mr Swann’s decision “disappointing” but inevitable.

“We would need someone who is completely focused on our health service, particularly during that Westminster campaigning (that is) going to be a distraction”.

She said that her party would continue to work with Mr Swann as the timing over a general election was uncertain.

The former DUP MLA, Jim Wells, previously ran for the South Down Westminster seat in 2015 while still serving as health minister.

He told the Irish News this had been “an absolutely awful decision that was forced upon me by the party.”

“Health was always about firefighting and crisis management, a completely full-time plus position,” he said.

“At the time I actually wrote to the party and explained this to them but they insisted I stand.

“It was the wrong decision. In my opinion, Robin has done exactly the right thing.

“For other departments, you might be able to leave the permanent secretary to look after the fort as it were, but health just never stops.

“He is being realistic. He will probably have to step aside as soon as the election is called, it’s a big decision but one I wish I had made.”

Former health minister Jim Wells. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Former health minister Jim Wells. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

He continued: “To be fair to Robin, he couldn’t have foreseen the way things would work out. So he’s giving fair warning to allow Mike Nesbitt to shadow him in a role I found the most demanding of my life.”

Belfast GP, Dr Alan Stout, chair of the Northern Ireland GPs Committee, said administrators “come and go.”

“Ministers, managers and civil servants will always come and go, and for different reasons,” he posted on Sunday.

“The only true consistency is those that work on the front line. They need to be listened to now more than ever.”

The Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie defended Mr Swann against some of the online criticism towards him on Sunday.

He also confirmed Mr Swann would stay on as an MLA if he was unsuccessful in taking the South Antrim seat, indicating he would not return as health minister either way.

Stating that he had just 24 hours to nominate a health minister when Stormont was restored earlier this year, he said Mr Swann knew his brief and had “the ability to get his replacement up to speed.”