By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
A Covid recovery plan for Northern Ireland has not been approved because the region does not currently have a first and deputy first minister, a joint meeting of Stormont committees has been told.
The hearing of the Executive Office, Finance and Economy committees had been due to receive a presentation on the plan from the interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jenny Pyper.
But at the start of the meeting, Executive Office committee chair Colin McGrath said the plan had been due to be approved on Tuesday but this had not taken place.
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster’s resignation on Monday set a seven-day clock running within which a new first and deputy first minister need to be appointed before the devolved institutions collapse.
But Sinn Fein and the DUP are currently in deadlock after the republican party said it would not take part in the nomination process unless there was progress on Irish language legislation.
Mr McGrath told the joint committee meeting: “There is a slightly different situation prevailing today because there was to be a presentation regarding the Covid recovery plan.
“But unfortunately that Covid recovery plan was to have been presented to the Executive yesterday and approved and then we would have been able to scrutinise and interrogate that.
“Due to the absence of a first and deputy first minister that Executive committee meeting could not take place yesterday, which means that the Covid recovery plan has not been officially approved.”
Mr McGrath added: “The fact that we don’t have a plan, and at this stage have no indication when that plan will be renewed, does create a lot of difficulty.
“Tomorrow there was to be an Executive committee meeting which would have addressed a number of restrictions and the easing of them; for example close contact services back to non-appointment stage, live music would have been permitted again, overnight stays would have been approved for youth services, they now can’t be approved tomorrow. I think people will be upset.”
Ms Pyper then briefed the committees on the work of the Covid taskforce and the financial pressures facing the health service.
She said: “The healthcare system is going to need very significant and ongoing support for some time to come.
“Many of the challenges faced by the healthcare system pre-pandemic, in terms of ageing population, the increased demand for services, long waiting lists, the workforce pressures and the emergence of new and more expensive treatments coupled with budget restraints. Those haven’t gone away and they continue to be persistent and indeed many have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“More than half of patients in Northern Ireland are waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment and the health system in Northern Ireland is facing significant financial challenges as a result of non-recurrent investment over the last number of years.
“We estimate that an additional £400 million will be needed in 2022/23, just to avoid cutting existing services and that is before any future service delivery to take account of population growth or recovery strategies is considered.
DUP MLA Jim Wells asked what happens to the recovery plan in the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont.
He said: “What does happen if we hit a political crisis and there is no Executive meeting to sign off on the recovery plan? What level of discretion do you and your team have to implement this, or does everything stop dead in its tracks?
Ms Pyper said: “The reality is that decisions on the regulations and the restrictions and the recovery plan, those decisions must be taken by the Executive as a whole, that has always been the position and that remains the position.
“Without an Executive in place we don’t have a means of moving forward, either to lift further restrictions or to implement the recovery strategy.”
Mr Wells responded: “Have you not been given any discretion to carry even the most basic aspects of the recovery plan?”
Ms Pyper said: “Nothing has been presented yet to the Executive, that was due to happen this week. But I have got to work on the basis that I’m planning for the resumption of normal business.”