Long-term funds and staff needed to tackle dire waiting lists – health minister

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Health Minister Robin Swann

By Q Radio News

Northern Ireland’s health minister has said the people deserve better as he asked for support and funding to rebuild the health service.

Many patients have been left waiting longer for treatment after the coronavirus pandemic saw many procedures having to be delayed.

Robin Swann said the pandemic hit the health service after “10 years of financial stringency and short-termism” had already taken a toll.

He said he is “determined to put this right”, but emphasised that to do this he needs the support of the Stormont Assembly and Executive to tackle the “absolutely dire waiting lists”.

Mr Swann described the current one-year budget as “extremely disappointing”, explaining the health service needs a “significant and recurrent funding commitment from the Executive”.

In a statement to the Assembly, Mr Swann said 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.

Mr Swann added that the pandemic has had a “significant impact” on “our already appalling waiting lists”.

It had also “highlighted serious long established fragilities in our health and social care system, especially in terms of staffing capacity”.

“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,” he said.

“With ever-growing waiting lists – I would question whether all of our citizens have adequate access to the health services they need.”

Mr Swann said more staff are needed to tackle waiting lists.

“The present funding model which we operate within is not fit for purpose. What is really needed is a multi-year budget, and unfortunately the Executive hasn’t received this from Westminster,” he said.

“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?

“How do you sign up more young people for the required years of training on the basis of single year funding?

“I recognise there are many pressing rival demands on the public purse in Northern Ireland. Huge issues face every department. I fully accept that the Executive has limited room for manoeuvre in budget terms. Decisions are taken in London and we have to play the cards we are dealt.

“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.

“It leaves thousands and thousands of our people in avoidable pain – our fellow citizens, our neighbours. We owe it to them to do much, much better.”

On Monday it was announced that the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital had been de-escalated with Covid patients to be treated instead at the Mater Hospital.

Mr Swann said the last Covid patients left the facility on Friday.

He described health trust rebuilding plans as including elective care being prioritised regionally – ie, patients prioritised by greatest clinical need, rather than postcode.

Turning to cancer treatment, Mr Swann said the “vast majority” of patients that experienced a delay from January to March this year have since had their treatment completed or have a confirmed plan in place.

The minister also detailed 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 for the region, particularly for urgent cancer diagnostic work.

He told MLAs that surgeons from across Northern Ireland 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-positive inpatients.

Northern Ireland-wide regional approaches to the prioritisation of surgery and to orthopaedic surgery have also been progressed.

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