Northern Ireland news

Health service will topple over without Executive support, Michelle O'Neill says

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Stormont in Belfast yesterday during her first press conference since recovering from Covid-19

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has warned that the health service is about to topple over without "immediate action" from the Executive.

After visiting the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast with First Minister Paul Givan, Ms O'Neill said staff were "begging" for help.

"What we heard repeatedly today is that the staff here are exhausted, they are physically and mentally exhausted, they're extremely anxious for the winter months ahead and what that will bring," she said.

"They're burned out is the best way probably to put it, they're seeing increased staff absences, for obvious reasons because they've had to make such difficult decisions.

"They're constantly facing not just the physical exhaustion but also dealing with families at very difficult times. They've had to go over and above and beyond, and we can't take any of that for granted, they're begging for our support in the time ahead because they know they're facing into a very difficult winter.

"With normal winter pressures, with the capacity in the health service being where it is at this point in time, I think they're just so fearful for what's ahead.

"So, they are asking for the Executive's support and I've given assurance today that I will reflect all the views that were expressed here today to the Executive meeting as we plan for the winter months ahead.

"It's very clear that the health service is about to topple over if we do not take immediate action to support the health service staff, the service itself, but also to stop the spread of the virus."

First Minister Paul Givan said the DUP would be taking a "measured" approach to the easing of further Covid restrictions in the north.

Mr Givan visited the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast ahead of an Executive meeting on Thursday September 23 to discuss Covid measures.

He said: "Whenever we come to the meeting on Thursday, of course we will be guided by all of the factors that we need to take into account. That is our health service, also what is happening in our economy, the impacts on community, family.

"That has been the approach we have taken over the past number of months where we have been able to take gradual measures. Other jurisdictions held the line and then allowed everything to reopen, and we have taken an approach which has been measured, and on Thursday we will take the same approach."

He added: "Of course, the health service will be vitally important, where are we in terms of the current transmission, the number of hospitalisations and then when we look at the ending of the furlough scheme, there are very real pressures on some sectors which are facing bankruptcy, and what I heard from people in the emergency department is that people are presenting with severe mental health issues as a result of the lockdown that happened. Delaying treatments because they weren't able to access services.

"So, there are multiple reasons as to why our hospitals are under pressure, Covid is one of them and we need to take balanced decisions, and we will take that approach as a party coming into Thursday, and I would hope that we can make some progress which is proportionate to the level of the risks."

Michelle O'Neill reiterated her view that she is not prepared to rule out a further lockdown.

However, he stressed she wanted to avoid the imposition of further restrictions.

"It's very clear that we need a very cautious approach in the time ahead," she said.

"It's very clear we have to factor in the state of the health service and the challenges facing our healthcare workers on a day-on-day basis.

"So, I think it has to be steady as you go, it has to be very cautious.

"I've always been very open enough to say that I never rule out anything, I keep everything on the table, I think that's the prudent way to proceed, it's also the honest way to proceed.

"However, I don't want to get to a scenario where you have to have a circuit-breaker or lockdown - I want to avoid that. The best way to avoid that is to take the prudent approach, to take the cautious approach, to take a preventative approach."

Michelle O'Neill said Health Minister Robin Swann would bring forward a winter surge plan for the health service in due course.

She said Thursday's Executive would focus on how the administration as a collective would respond to the winter pressures.

Ms O'Neill said further details should be announced on Thursday afternoon.

"It has to be a whole combination of things, it has to be about that preventative approach, it has to be about the cautious approach, it has to be about the communication with the public, it has to be about what are the tools that we can reach to if we find yourselves in a very desperate situation again," she said.

"So, those are the three areas that I want the executive to discuss and hopefully provide that information then on Thursday afternoon."

Asked whether nightclubs will get a roadmap for reopening on Thursday, Michelle O'Neill said: "I don't expect to see us being able to make huge strides forward in terms of that. I understand the hospitality sector have been hardest hit and we need to do all we can to support them.

"That's why I think it's really important to start or continue the conversations with them around ventilation, how to get them to a state of readiness to be able to open at some point, hopefully in the future.

"I do think that in terms of big moves forward or strides on Thursday, I don't suspect that's where we're going to get to."

First Minister Paul Givan has said that Executive ministers need to balance the pressure on the health service due to Covid with the potential consequences of further restrictions.

Mr Givan said: "I do think that politicians need to be honest about the realities of what we are facing and there has been a sustained pressure on our health service which has lasted, in terms of this wave, longer than previous waves.

"It hasn't reached the same peaks. If you think about the last wave we had nearly 1,000 people being admitted into our hospitals. The peak so far in this wave has just been short of 500. There are a lot less people now who contract Covid that end up being hospitalised."

He added: "We received in Northern Ireland billions of pounds to close down businesses, provide financial support and that money isn't coming from the Treasury; so whenever people talk about having a lockdown, what does that mean? Does that mean closing down all of our businesses? Would that mean unemployment? The impact of lockdown disproportionately affected the poorest in society.

"Lockdowns have consequences and this is where the difficulty comes for the politicians, we consider everything in the round and we seek to take the best and the balanced decisions."

Mr Givan said he had seen the pressures faced by staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital during a visit.

He said: "Listening to the staff and the impact it has had on them at a personal level, people are working more hours than they have every worked before, sacrifices made with their own family."

 

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Topics

Northern Ireland news