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Minister fears 4,000 will be laid off and hospitals could close

By Lisa Smyth

Michael McGimpsey has said the health service is running out of money and the budget he has been given for the next four years is “much worse” than he expected.

Denying his comments are “scaremongering”, the Health Minister warned 4,000 jobs could go from the NHS and said he could not rule out the possibility that he may have to close wards and even hospitals.

And in a blow for people living in the north west, he said while construction of the planned radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin may go ahead, he cannot afford to equip or staff the facility.

Mr McGimpsey said: “I had no idea Sammy Wilson was going to give a commitment on Altnagelvin. No-one told me it was going to be included. I don’t have the money to equip it or staff it if it is built.”

After months of campaigning by Mr McGimpsey, the Executive agreed to ring-fence the health budget and while this means the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will get an extra £326m over the next four years, only £45m will be available in the next financial year.

Health bosses claim this is not enough to cope with the additional demand being placed on the NHS. They say they need £150m to deliver a safe and sustainable service next year.

“It’s much worse than I expected,” added Mr McGimpsey.

“I had discussions with different people some weeks ago and the health budget has deteriorated since then. There will be job losses and we are talking thousands not hundreds. I think 4,000 is a potential. These will be right across the board, including doctors and nurses.”

Mr McGimpsey said hospital waiting lists will rise as a consequence of the draft Budget but stopped short of reiterating claims made by Unison official Lily Kerr that lives could be lost as a result.

He said: “I don’t want to use emotive language but the reality is doctors will come to me, as they already have done, and say the service is not safe, and when they say that I have no choice but to make closures. Patient safety is everything. I can’t rule out closing beds, wards or hospitals.

“The fact is I have been in business all my life and we’re running out of money. There are not huge savings to be made. Anyone who works in the health service will tell you they are already overstretched. The whole system is stretched. My concern is we are at tipping point.”

Under the draft Budget the protection offered to the health budget has not been extended to social services.

Mr McGimpsey said it would be difficult to divert money away from healthcare to plug the gap in social services.

“If I do that then health will suffer,” he said.

He said areas such as child protection, care packages for the elderly and mental health services will be badly affected.

“There will be situations where care workers are saying to elderly people that they need 20 hours of care but they can only afford 10,” he said.

“Last year there were 22,000 children referred under child protection, which is up from 16,000 from when I first came to the post. I have invested in child protection services, which is hugely underfunded compared to England, and tried to address this, but my budget is diminishing. We are going to be in a position where it can’t function, but we can’t walk away from children, we can’t leave them.”

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