By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Attempts to rebuild Northern Ireland’s health service risk being sabotaged by the absence of a budget, Robin Swann has warned.
The North's Health Minister said it was “hard to imagine a worse possible time to deprive our health service of budgetary certainty” in a written statement to MLAs providing an update on reform of services.
A planned multi-year budget which would have prioritised spending in health has not been progressed due to the collapse of the powersharing institutions at Stormont.
The DUP is calling for action from the UK government addressing its concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol before re-entering the Executive.
Ministers are currently in position in caretaker roles but are operating with limited powers.
In his statement Mr Swann updated the Assembly on a number of initiatives, including his decision to commission a design plan mapping out the future shape of hospital services across Northern Ireland.
He also briefed MLAs on the review of general surgery and initiatives to improve stroke care and rebuild orthopaedic surgery provision.
But Mr Swann warned that “much more needs to be done to fix our health service”.
He said: “The serious problems we are facing have built up over many years and have been significantly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In my considered view, it is hard to imagine a worse possible time to deprive our health service of budgetary certainty across the short, medium and long term. This situation threatens to seriously delay, if not thwart, the progress we need to make.
“It is difficult to envisage what it would be like to run a household budget without any certainty on income levels. Everyday decisions on expenditure would be shrouded in doubt, concern and insecurity.
“Consider then that we are condemning a £7 billion-a-year health and social care system to similar circumstances.”
He added: “Not long ago, patients and staff in Northern Ireland had the promise of a multi-year budget, with the potential for longer-term planning and sustained investment.
“As things stand at present, we have no budget at all. Prolonging this state of affairs would be tantamount to sabotaging the rebuilding of our health service.
“Currently, every decision I make on approving additional expenditure is being taken at risk.”
Mr Swann said funding pressures would become more significant as the financial year progressed.
He added: “I continue to be lobbied by members to further increase funding across a wide range of vitally important health and social care services.
“My inability to meet these demands is not due to any unwillingness on my behalf. Not only do I not have unlimited funds, I do not even have a confirmed budget.
“Members have a right and indeed a responsibility to press ministers on behalf of their constituents. At the same time, public debate on public expenditure must not be conducted in a collective state of denial.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Colleges of Physicians have issued a joint plea, urging action to protect health services in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland currently has the longest hospital waiting lists in the UK and experts have warned that the current structures are not sustainable.
Professor Andrew Elder, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said: “We are calling for a multi-year budget because it would bring much-needed certainty to health budget planning.
“Healthcare workers and patients need to know what to expect from health and social care over the coming years, and a multi-year budget agreement will help to do that while giving the health department the tools to address treatment backlogs.
“We would advise that the Bengoa recommendations be taken forward to benefit the people of Northern Ireland.
“But this can only be done with the full support of all political parties in the province.”