A GP has warned of a winter flu crisis in Northern Ireland - as workers in the local health service reel from the impact of proposed cuts.
Potential cuts to the health service outlined in a paper from health minister Edwin Poots stated that cuts could restrain pay for health sector staff, lower the number of agency staff and reduce spending on home care packages.
Mr Poots said his department faces a £140m shortfall.
Prominent GP, Dr Tom Black, said: "I'm worried at the pressure we'll be under in November and December with the onset of winter illness. The health minister's document is something the like of which we've never seen before in Northern Ireland.
"We have a system that is already under pressure. We are not in a place where we can absorb any more cuts, let alone unprecedented cut such as this. The system can't sustain this loss of locum doctors or agency nurses, they're the glue that holds the system together and we already have a recruitment and retention crisis in general practice and A&E."
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has insisted it will veto the proposed health service cuts at the Executive – but has not revealed how it would meet the funding shortfall. Demands for an early return of the Executive to tackle the health spending crisis are growing as the row between Sinn Fein and the DUP deepens, with no sign of a resolution.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed last week, the next scheduled meeting of ministers is not until September 11 but Sinn Fein yesterday said they would support a meeting early next week.
And with the Stormont health committee due to cross-examine Minister Poots next week, it also emerged the financial squeeze facing his department will be discussed by the Executive's Budget sub-committee in the run-up to the new Assembly term starting Monday week.
But Sinn Fein also made clear they would not vote to implement the drastic potential cuts outlined by Mr Poots in a no-holds-barred document sent to his Executive colleagues.
And the party said if Mr Poots forces the entire Executive to take decisions, it will ask to see all his departmental paperwork, including advice from civil servants.
Mr Poots had warned that given the "devastating impact" of cuts the department is facing "it would not be appropriate for such decisions to be taken by a single minister".
Education Minister John O'Dowd – department was exempted from further cuts in the last Stormont monitoring round – conceded that the health portfolio could do with a cash injection.
"Health needs more money, but how we achieve further funding for health and where that money will be invested – that's the challenge which faces politicians in the Executive," he said.
He described the stark document from Mr Poots as a "political paper" designed to force his Executive colleagues to agree to channel further funding into health, which was given an extra £20m in June despite a £13m overspend, which earned Mr Poots a rebuke from his DUP colleague, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton.
Mr O'Dowd said: "There's a strategy known as 'bleeding stump', and when you're seeking further funding for your department, officials will...present you with the worst case scenario possible.
"If this paper is presented to the executive as the only choice it will not be endorsed by Sinn Fein, so therefore it's going nowhere."
Mr O'Dowd said he would be prepared to see an Executive meeting next week and Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry also told The Nolan Show he hoped there would be an Executive session as soon as possible.
Chief medical officer Michael McBride, who took part in a briefing of Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in April, is due to appear at the committee.
The proposed cuts
- Pay restraints for health care staff – to save nearly £15m
- Cuts to agency/locum doctors and nurses
- Major cuts to care packages for the elderly
- Pharmacy savings – therefore less money for drug therapies such as cancer, arthritis and MS
- Halt development of round-the-clock cardiac centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry
- Transforming Your Care programme would lose £9m