Northern Ireland news

Health minister warns 'appalling' waiting lists most urgent issue facing all Stormont departments

Health minister Robin Swann has warned of the impact of a reduced budget on the health service as it emerges from the pandemic
Seanín Graham

HEALTH minister Robin Swann has said "appalling" waiting lists are the most pressing issue facing Stormont - and warned the NHS is in danger of not being able to deliver on its founding principles.

Addressing the Assembly yesterday, Mr Swann laid out the impact of a severely reduced year-on-year budget as the health trusts attempt to rebuild services post Covid-19.

He confirmed detailed plans are being finalised on both waiting times and cancer care.

"These will shortly be issued for public consultation, as will a review of urgent and emergency care," he said.

Prior to the pandemic, the north had the worst waiting lists in the NHS, with the crisis exacerbated by Covid.

By the end of last December, more than 320,000 patients were waiting for their appointment with a hospital consultant, while surgery waiting lists have also rocketed.

Without adequate funding, Mr Swann said there will not be enough money to recruit new staff while retention is also an issue.

There are almost 3,000 empty nursing jobs in Northern Ireland while increasing numbers of ICU nursse have quit in the past year.

Addressing the Assembly yesterday, Mr Swann said: "Our health service prides itself on being available to all, free at the point of access. I will today contend that we are in grave danger of undermining this essential feature of our health service. With ever growing waiting lists - I would question whether all of our citizens have adequate access to the health services they need?

"...To properly put waiting lists right, we will clearly need more staff in our health service. But how can you recruit additional people to the workforce if there's no certainty you'll have the money to keep paying them next year?"

"I recognise there are many pressing rival demands on the public purse in Northern Ireland...However, I cannot think of a more pressing issue facing us than waiting times. It cries out for action. It is a daily rebuke to the standing of this House and to the reputation of politics."

On Monday it was announced that the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital was officially de-escalated as a Covid hospital, with Covid patients to be treated instead at the Mater Hospital.

Mr Swann said health trust rebuilding plans for three months will included planned care and operations being prioritised regionally - with patients seen according to greatest clinical need, rather than postcode.

The Irish News understands that proposals are at advanced stage to transform the City Hospital tower block into a regional centre for elective complex cancer surgeries.

With more than 1,000 cancer procedures suspended between January and March this year due to coronavirus pressures, the Assembly heard yesterday the "vast majority" of patients affected have since had their treatment completed or have a confirmed plan in place.

Mr Swann also yesterday outlined actions taken to protect elective services.

These have included establishing Northern Ireland's first regional Day Procedure Centre at Lagan Valley Hospital, which has been providing support, particularly for urgent cancer diagnostic work.

He told MLAs that surgeons from across the north have been travelling to the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen to provide surgery that could not be provided at other sites due to the numbers of Covid inpatients.

However, he said that the current funding arrangement was "not fit for purpose" and would severely impact on rebuilding work - adding the pandemic has had a "significant impact" on "our already appalling waiting lists".

"What is really needed is a multi-year budget and unfortunately the Executive hasn't received this from Westminster.

He added: "...Without a significant and recurrent funding commitment from the Executive, I fear that we will be severely restricted in our ability to deliver. We will be fighting the scourge of waiting lists with at least one hand tied behind our backs.

"We must start putting this right. It is a long-term task and it needs long-term, recurrent funding."

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