Northern Ireland news

Ministers may need to surrender funds to help tackle health problems, says Conor Murphy

 Finance Minister Conor Murphy talks with Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (right), during a visit to the Balmoral show, Lisburn. Picture by Peter Morrison/PA Wire
David Young and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Stormont ministers may need to surrender money from their own departments to help address problems engulfing the  health service, Conor Murphy has said.

The finance minister said he had asked other executive ministers to plan on the basis that their budgets may be cut to prioritise health spending.

Mr Murphy said the money available to Stormont departments would become clear after the British government announces its three-year spending review next month.

Once Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils the review, ministers in Belfast will set a three-year budget for Northern Ireland.

It will be the first time in several years when Northern Ireland will have a budget that extends beyond a year.

“We’re in a situation where we have to prioritise and look at what that might mean for the departments,” said Mr Murphy.

“We’ve had 10 years of austerity budgets, so none of our public services are properly funded, particularly health is under pressure, and given the pandemic experience I think everyone has rightly recognised that health is a priority, and that’s my view – that I want to prioritise health.

“We have a three-year budget opportunity now – that’s the first time in a long number of years that we’re not doing just a year-on-year budget, so that’s an opportunity to plan.

“So we can try and deal properly with issues like waiting lists and health transformation. That means we’re going to have to put the resources there and what I’m saying to executive ministers is we don’t know what the outcome of the budget in the autumn is going to be from Britain.

“We need to plan on the basis of that we may have to surrender money from other departments to match the priority.

“If everyone agrees, as I’ve suggested, that health is the priority, that transformation (of the health service), that waiting lists are priorities within that, then we need to be prepared to put the resources that is needed to do that.”

First Minister Paul Givan said health spending should be a priority for the Executive.

“Later in the month, we’re going to get the comprehensive spending review announcements from the Treasury and the Chancellor will unveil that and we will then know what our budget allocation will be for the next three years,” he said.

“That will allow a much more strategic focus to expenditure and we will be able to take decisions. The Department of Health, tackling the problems in our health service, is going to be a priority and a priority for all the other parties.”

Mr Givan said the financial pressures facing the powersharing administration were “hugely challenging”.

He said the executive would receive an additional £180 million in the remainder of this financial year as a knock-on result of increased spending in England.

“We’ll be looking to see how (Health Minister) Robin Swann intends to spend that, so in principle we support that going into health, but we need to see how that’s going to be spent,” he said.

Yesterday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill warned that the health service was in danger of collapsing without immediate action by the Executive.

Mr Swann was asked if he shared Ms O’Neill’s view.

“It is a description that our service has been under over the past number of years,” he said.

“The pressures that we’ve seen due to non-recurrent funding, the current pressures that we’ve seen on staffing as well, have been exacerbated due to Covid.

“We’re still seeing those persistent 400 numbers of (Covid) inpatients, we’re seeing increased pressure actually on our ICU, and that actually curtails us from doing some of the services and delivering some of the operations that we want to do so.”

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