Two of Northern Ireland’s Executive ministers have angrily clashed over who is to blame for soaring hospital waiting lists.
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey’s claim that work on reducing waiting lists was stopped while he waited to find out how much money he would have to battle swine flu has been rubbished by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
Yesterday it was revealed there has been a huge increase in the number of people who have waited longer than they should have for a first outpatient appointment in Northern Ireland's hospitals.
The target states that patients should have an appointment within nine weeks.
Department of Health figures show that 4,500 people waited more than nine weeks in September 2009.
But by December 2009 the number of people waiting more than nine weeks had shot up to almost 16,000.
Ministerial targets also state that people should wait no longer than 13 weeks for admission as an inpatient.
That waiting list is continuing to increase too — the figures showed that, at the end of December, there were 6,010 patients waiting longer than 13 weeks, compared to 2,975 in the previous quarter.
UUP Health Minister Michael McGimpsey blamed the fact that health trusts had suspended “waiting list work” until he received clarity on how much money he would have to tackle a potential swine flu epidemic.
He said: “DFP’s (Department of Finance and Personnel) delay in clarifying my budget position when swine flu was at its height was most unhelpful and unfortunately pandemics do not follow DFP finance cycles.”
He said that budget was only finalised in October.
The minister said the further rise in waiting times was “disappointing”.
But DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson hit back by claiming the Health Minister had not spent all the money available to him.
He said: “There is no justification for suggesting that delays in funding for swine flu resulted in an increase in hospital waiting lists. The Health Minister was never told he wasn’t getting the money.
“He got the money in September and he didn’t spend the money, nor did he give it back. He still has £13.4m unspent money which he has earmarked for elective care.
“Altogether he was given over £27m from other departments and handed back £20m.”
Mr McGimpsey said that although he was disappointed by the rise in waiting list times they are still a vast improvement on 2005.
He added: “Hospital waiting times have significantly improved in recent years and are unrecognisable compared to 2005 when, under direct rule, patients had to endure unacceptably long waits.”
He also warned that the health service is operating under “severe strain”.
He added: “In the past two years alone, there has been an increase of some 20% demand for hospital services, yet our funding has only increased by 0.5% in real terms, the lowest rise in living memory.”