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Sinn Fein plea for £31m to cut waiting lists is woefully inadequate: Foster

By David Young, PA

Arlene Foster has branded Michelle O'Neill's request for £31m to resolve the waiting list crisis as "woefully inadequate".

The DUP leader wrote to Sinn Fein's Health Minister and new Stormont leader in response to her written request for political rivals to back her plan.

While Mrs Foster indicated "provisional support" for extra funding to address waiting times, she said the cash injection fell well short of what the health service needed.

Mrs O'Neill announced proposals earlier this week aimed at reducing the large number of patients waiting longer than a year for treatment.

However, the plan was not funded because Stormont's collapse has left the administration without an agreed budget for the next financial year.

The Health Minister said political consensus on the need to spend the money would provide "clear political direction" to civil servants who may be forced to take control of the purse strings if a power-sharing government is not restored on the other side of March's snap election.

Mrs Foster, who claimed the Sinn Fein plan had been "rushed out in the mouth of an election" without due Assembly scrutiny, said if devolution was not returned, the likelihood was that it would be direct rule Conservative ministers making decisions on health spending, not civil servants.

"It is unfortunate that the political priority of Sinn Fein to force an early election took priority over the interests of those most in need of the health service", she wrote. The DUP leader also said the failure to strike a budget had already "jeopardised" the delivery of key public services.

"My view remains that a cross-community power-sharing administration made up of people from Northern Ireland is a better way forward than leaving decisions to Conservative ministers, but I appreciate that you may now have a different view", she told Mrs O'Neill, suggesting that Sinn Fein appeared willing to trust the UK Government with the region's public services.

Mrs Foster pointed out that both the DUP and Sinn Fein had made manifesto pledges in the last election to spend an additional £1bn on health in five years.

"An allocation of £31.2m is woefully inadequate in relation to the needs of the health service", she wrote.

The DUP leader added: "What is now needed is a comprehensive budget which makes provision not just for the health service but for all government departments".

Mrs Foster said it would have been possible to have agreed this but for the "unnecessary election".

An estimated 40,000 people are waiting more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment. Around 8,000 patients are waiting longer than a year for day care inpatient treatment.

Outlining her vision on how to transform health and social care services, Mrs O'Neill said £31m would clear the backlog, by March 2018, of patients waiting more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment and inpatient/day case.

In addition, the backlog of patients waiting more than 26 weeks at March 2017 for diagnostics would also be cleared by the same date.

Sinn Fein's health spokesman, Pat Sheehan, claimed Mrs Foster's criticism was "another desperate attempt" to deflect attention from her handling of the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

"Arlene Foster's criticism of a plan put forward by Health Minister Michelle O'Neill to reduce waiting lists is pathetic," Mr Sheehan added.

"It is yet another attempt to distract the public's attention from the DUP's botched handling of the RHI scheme.

"Some £30m is being lost to the public purse this year as a result of the DUP's botched RHI scheme. That would cover the Health Minister's plan to reduce waiting lists in 12 months."

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