Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Northern Ireland politicians to visit Cuba to study the island’s health system

Havana's crumbling colonial facades and classic American cars make it visually unique.
Havana's crumbling colonial facades and classic American cars make it visually unique.
Cuba's capital, Havana
A man carries a dead pig over his shoulder to be cooked for new year's dinner in Havana, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008. Cuba will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1959 revolution on Jan. 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
Havana
A man throws his dog in for a swim during low tide in front of the seawall and promenade known as the Malecon in Havana, Friday, May 11, 2007. Since work began on the Malecon more than 100 years ago by American forces occupying the island, it has become a Havana hallmark, drawing city residents out for a stroll, a swim or maybe a drink.
A woman holds a Cuban flag as cowboys prepare to compete during the 13th Boyeros Cattleman's Fair in Havana, Saturday, March 29, 2008. The fair is a celebration of more than two centuries of Cuban rodeo tradition, bringing together top riders from all over the island who split into squads of East and West and compete for awards denoting best province and best overall rider.
A painting depicting the Statue of Liberty, placed for May Day celebrations, is seen in front of an image of revolutionary leader Ernesto 'Che' Guevara at the revolution Square in Havana Monday April 30, 2007. Cuba geared up Monday for its traditional May Day march featuring hundreds of thousands of workers, but an appearance by recovering leader Fidel Castro at the event was uncertain.
Cuban daily life is reflected on an image of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a store window in Havana, Monday, April 30, 2007. With a public appearance by the recovering leader still uncertain, communist Cuba geared up Monday for a huge May Day march featuring several million workers.
A model takes a break backstage before modeling a creation by Cuba's designer Ariel Napoles in Old Havana
A man walks past a billboard that reads in Spanish "The Bush plan: It would take away our compromise, the work we have to do and dreams we love" in Havana. Billboards blanket parks, public squares, intersections and highways all over the island, rising above apartment buildings in the city and sugar and coffee fields outside it. Many lionize Castro and revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, urge energy conservation or use cartoons to promote socialism
Cuban farmer Francisco Acosta Rey works at his tobacco plantation at the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Friday, Jan. 11, 2008. Cuba is internationally known by the quality of his tobacco production and holds an annual cigar festival every February.
A farmer works in a tobacco field in the western province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008. The 10th edition of the International Cigar Festival, attended by hundreds of cigar aficionados from 60 countries, includes visits to plantations and cigar factories.
A model wears a creation by Cuban designer Ariel Napoles in Old Havana
Two children attend the inauguration of the exhibit "Olimpo de los Cinco" by Cuba's artist Jose Rodriguez, also known as Foster, in Havana, Monday, Sept. 15, 2008. The exhibit commemorates the 10th anniversary of the arrest of five Cuban government agents who were sentenced to long prison terms on espionage charges in Florida. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
The sun and atmospheric conditions combine to create a rainbow colored ring around the sun in the skies above Havana, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Cuban construction workers take a break during their working day in Old Havana, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
A woman walks past a graffiti depicting Argentine-born revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Havana, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008. Cuba marks the 41st anniversary of "Che" Guevara's death on Oct. 8, although he was killed on Oct. 9, 1967 in the town of La Higuera, Bolivia.(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
A woman sits at a grandstand during a 2010 World Cup qualifying soccer match between Cuba and Guatemala in Havana, Wednesday, Oct .15, 2008. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
The Capitol building is seen during the sunset in Havana, Thursday, Oct .16, 2008. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Metropolitan Kirill, left, the top foreign relations official in the Russian church, talks to Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, as local officials look on during the inauguration of Cuba's first Russian Orthodox cathedral in Havana, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008. Russian diplomats and members of Cuba's dwindling Russian community crowded into the seaside cathedral for the cathedral's official opening.(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, Pool)
A dog walks on its hind legs as its owners hold its paws in Old Havana, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008. The owner said she walks her dog on its hind legs in the street so that it will not cross alone and risk being hit by a car. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A boy watches the 50th Anniversary of the Revolution ceremony on television in his home decorated with a photograph of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009. Fifty years after triumphant armed rebels descended from the eastern mountains, communist Cuba celebrated the revolution's anniversary Thursday with toned-down festivities after a trio of devastating hurricanes and under the enduring public absence of an ailing Fidel Castro. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
A woman watches the 50th Anniversary of the Revolution ceremony on television in her home decorated with a photograph of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Thursday, Jan.1, 2009. Fifty years after triumphant armed rebels descended from the eastern mountains, communist Cuba celebrated the revolution's anniversary Thursday with toned-down festivities after a trio of devastating hurricanes and under the enduring public absence of an ailing Fidel Castro. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
People enjoy a sunny day in Havana, Cuba
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Thousands of Cubans arrive in Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: People gather where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: People gather where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 26: A women who runs a small clothing store in the front room of her home waits for customers on the day that Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 26, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Pope Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the March 28.Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 26: People enjoy a drink beer at a bar on the day that Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 26, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Pope Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the March 28.Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 25: A woman looks out at Antonio Maceo Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is set to speak on the first day of a three day visit to Cuba on March 25, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict will arrive into the communist country on Monday the 26th. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 25: A women prays before the start of services at Santo Angel Custodio church a day before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 25, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 25: Alter boys prepare for the start of a morning service at Santo Angel Custodio church a day before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 25, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 25: Parishioners pray together at Santo Angel Custodio church during a morning service a day before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 25, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 25: Women with the dissident Ladies in White group, also known as "Damas de Blanco", march together after a church service a day before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on March 25, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. The Ladies in White group are the wives and mothers of 75 people who had been arrested and received lengthy prison sentences but have all been freed, most as part of a 2010 agreement brokered by the church. Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Workers prepare seating at Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: A priest takes a picture as thousands of Cubans arrive in Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 26: People watch on television the mass being held by Pope Benedict XVI in Santiago de Cuba on March 26, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Pope Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the March 28.Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 26: An old car is seen in the streets on March 26, 2012 in Havana, Cuba. Pope Benedict, who will be arriving from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the March 28.Tensions are high in Cuba between some dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Thousands of Cubans arrive in Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Thousands of Cubans listen to Pope Benedict XVI speak in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Thousands of Cubans arrive in Revolution Square where Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to speak later in the day on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Cubans leave Revolution Square following mass by Pope Benedict XVI on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: A woman overwhelmed by the heat is taken away by medical personnel during the mass of Pope Benedict XVI in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Cubans take communion during the mass of Pope Benedict XVI in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Cuban President Raul Castro (C) stands in Revolution Square as Pope Benedict XVI is about to speak on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Cubans wave their hands as they listen to Pope Benedict XVI speak in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 26: Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Revolution Square on March 26, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, will conduct a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People gather for a May Day march in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, Pool)
Workers gather for a May Day march in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, Pool)
People carry a Cuban flag during a May Day march in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
In this photo released by Cubadebate, Pope Benedict XVI, right, meets with Cuba's Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Cubadebate)
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile as is being driven after his arrival in Santiago de Cuba Monday March 26, 2012.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan,Pool)
In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano)
Cubans wave and cheer as Pope Benedict XVI, not seen, is being driven along the streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday March 26, 2012.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan,Pool)
In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano Pope Benedict XVI, right, meets with Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano)
Surrounded by security, Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful from his popemobile as he arrives at Revolution Square to celebrate a Mass in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday, March, 26, 2012.(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
A crowd attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at the Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday, March, 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina)
Cuban President Raul Castro greets Pope Benedict XVI after a Mass in Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday, March, 26, 2012.(AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
Images of Pope Benedict XVI by the French-Italian artist Gaspare Di Caro are projected on the facade of Havana's cathedral in Havana, Cuba, Sunday March. 25, 2012. Benedict XVI will arrive to Cuba on Monday. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
Pope Benedict XVI attends a welcome ceremony at the airport in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Monday March 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano,Pool)
In this photo released by Cuba's newspaper Juventud Rebelde, former Cuba's President Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, unseen, and Cuba's President Raul Castro, unseen, in Havana, Tuesday June 17, 2008. Cuban television showed the first images of Fidel Castro in more than five months, broadcasting a silent video of the ailing revolutionary chatting in a garden with visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (AP Photo/Juventud Revelde)

A Stormont committee is aiming to find a new way to improve efficiency in the health service — by flying a team of MLAs and an official across the Atlantic.

The group will travel to the Caribbean in December on a fact-finding mission to observe Cuba’s healthcare system — at a cost of £6,000.

Originally the committee had discussed sending all 11 members, or a member from each party, but has now decided against it.

Among those travelling to the four-day conference in Havana will be the chair of the Assembly’s health committee Sue Ramsey and deputy chair Jim Wells.

A committee clerk will also travel on the visit.

The taxpayer-funded trip is being promoted as an opportunity to observe Cuba’s renowned health system.

Mr Wells said the priority was to ensure that money was used “effectively” and to provide “the best outcomes for people”.

However, a leading lobby group has questioned the need to travel more than 4,000 miles when video-conference facilities can connect people across the world.

Jonathan Isaby, political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said politicians must always consider whether a trip is strictly necessary in the first place.

“After all, video-conferencing facilities are now able to connect MLAs with other politicians or experts around the world at very little cost,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“And if the trip is deemed necessary, they should be flying standard class and staying in modest hotels.

“Politicians must be able to demonstrate that the overseas excursion is absolutely essential and delivering taxpayers value for money before they start racking up the air miles.”

Although regarded as a Third World country, with many people living on a salary of around £10 a month, Cuba’s health system is highly-rated.

Politicians and doctors say they hope to learn from the Cuban model, which produces one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world.

Cuba’s average life expectancy is 77, compared to 71 in Belfast.

The communist system has also produced world leaders in eyecare.

A cataract operation in Cuba costs about £40 — a fraction of the price for similar surgery in Northern Ireland.

The island has more doctors and surgeons, but fewer hospitals, relying more on health centres and clinics.

Mr Wells said the visit would allow the group to see at first-hand how the system works and whether it could be applied in Northern Ireland.

“Cuba is also known for being able to deliver excellent health outcomes despite spending considerably less than most European countries, including Northern Ireland,” he said.

“We need to ensure that the monies we have available to spend on health are used effectively and provide for the best outcomes for people.

“We need to learn from systems which have been proven to produce good outcomes that are equitable and cost -effective.”

They decided to go after consulting with health visitor Una Lynch, who spent nearly five months studying Cuba’s healthcare system in 2005.

“The World Health Organisation in 2008 in their world health report highlight Cuba as a model of excellent practice,” she said.

“Needs assessment is very much at the heart of the service and within each neighbourhood they have GPs attached to approximately 300 families, depending on the density of the population.”

According to Ms Lynch, a system is then created to ensure the services available to a community are responsive to its needs.

Ms Ramsey said Cuba is well-known across the world for its success in terms of improving public health.

“Lessons can be learned from Cuba which can be applied to how we take forward our new public health strategy,” she added.

“The visit will allow us to see health projects at first-hand, talk to health professionals on the ground and also meet experts in this field who will be attending the conference.”

However, Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy, who also sits on the health committee, said the trip was not the best use of public money.

Mr McCarthy said an option to send the whole committee to Cuba was pulled after he raised objections.

“While I acknowledge that Cuba has a very good health system and I am sure that we could learn some things from them, I believe that this trip is not justified when video-conferencing facilities are available to us,” he said.

“I am sure that we could have learned the same amount as Sue Ramsey and Jim Wells will if we organised to make a video-conference call involving the whole committee, instead of sending them.”

Mr McCarthy also questioned how much can really be learned from the Cuban health system.

“The Cuba model may not be transferable to Northern Ireland considering that they are a communist country and being in the Caribbean, they obviously have a different climate,” he added.

“I understand that their salaries are different to ours, and pay is obviously a big part of our health budget, so I do not know how much we can copy them.”

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The Complete Guide To: Cuba

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Mounting public unease at overseas journeys where the taxpayer picks up the bill

By Adrian Rutherford

The planned fact-finding mission to Cuba is not the first time that a costly overseas trip has caused controversy.

Earlier this year MLAs abandoned plans to visit California following a public backlash.

An outcry was sparked after it emerged the employment and learning committee was considering a trip to San Diego despite the deepening impact of public spending cuts.

Initially, it was suggested that the 11-strong committee would set off on the five-day tour at a potential cost of £12,000.

The all-expenses paid visit was aimed at uncovering how research work in universities and other institutions can help create jobs.

Committee members Jim Allister and Michelle Gildernew said they were unhappy with the trip.

The committee later unanimously voted against the proposal.

Concerns about overseas travel were also raised following a Belfast Telegraph investigation earlier this year.

This newspaper revealed how Stormont ministers, MLAs and senior civil servants had enjoyed five-star hospitality during costly trips around the world.

Former Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey visited the United States and Canada six times in 18 months.

During one visit, Mr Empey stayed at the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in Washington. Meanwhile, DUP MLA Nelson McCausland made three expensive overseas trips in six months as Culture Minister.

On a visit to India for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, he stayed at the five-star Le Meridien.

Another 10-day trip to America by Mr McCausland and two advisers, intended to enhance links between Northern Ireland and the US, cost some £30,000.

Two other former ministers stayed in five-star comfort while on overseas business, according to documents released after Freedom of Information requests.

Former Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie stopped at the luxury Fitzpatrick Manhattan and Willard Intercontinental while in the US for the 2010 St Patrick’s celebrations.

And ex-Agriculture Minister Ms Gildernew stayed at the five-star Hotel Sofitel in Brussels while attending a meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in May 2009.

The hotel’s website states it is “a truly elegant and luxury five-star hotel”.

Other ministers and officials travelled to cities across Europe.

Former Environment Minister Edwin Poots and eight colleagues attended a major climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 at a cost of £8,766.

Ex-Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy and a special adviser also travelled to Valencia in Spain, staying at the four-star Vincci Lys hotel. Its website describes how rooms are “completely equipped with the most modern services to satisfy the most demanding traveller”.

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