Health service branded 'rudderless' after Stormont committee meeting on impact of no permanent minister in post
Northern Ireland's health service has been branded "rudderless" after the department's permanent secretary came under fire at a health committee meeting.
The Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson described the performance of Richard Pengelly as "utterly shocking and devoid of any detail" at the meeting of Stormont's Health Committee to discuss the impact of having no permanent health minister in post.
Former health minister Simon Hamilton is one of the so-called 'in-out' DUP ministers as the party continues to undergo their cycle of renominating ministers within a week, and resigning again in a bid to protect the roles being taken by other parties.
It comes as Stormont is currently submerged in a political crisis following the PSNI's assessment that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the murder of father-nine Kevin McGuigan in the Short Strand last month.
The absent ministers - and in particular the health minister Simon Hamilton - have come under increasing pressure from other parties to return to their roles permanently.
At the Health Committee meeting Mr Pengelly confirmed Mr Hamilton was in post that morning.
Mr Pengelly said in "terms of operational issues it is absolutely business as usual".
He also said he could not have "every scrap of information" about the health service.
The Upper Bann MLA criticised Mr Pengelly for not having a "presentation or brief" and for being "vague" when answering questions.
She said: “From his performance today Mr Pengelly has let down the thousands of health service staff who are operating at breaking point in hospitals and health facilities right across Northern Ireland.
“Mr Pengelly came to the Committee without a presentation or a brief, and with an obvious intent to be vague when answering questions, but robust in defending the in/out Health Minister.
“From the responses, I would not call them answers, provided to my questioning I was left stunned at the lack of apparent knowledge and detail from the most senior official within the Department of Health."
She continued: "On Monday I roundly criticised Health Minister Simon Hamilton for once again failing to appear for our party’s key cancer services debate in the Assembly. He also didn’t show up for our motion on 21 September on spiralling hospital waiting times, and again yesterday he failed to appear for an SDLP motion on Autism.
“It wasn’t unreasonable to expect that as the Minister didn’t answer any of the points raised in these debates, Mr Pengelly would come to the committee prepared to address the concerns which we as elected representatives are raising on behalf of local people, many left in agonising pain for months on end on waiting lists."
“One of the most shocking areas where there was an apparent lack of information amongst the officials was the reality for local people and the waiting times and delays for Breast Cancer sufferers.
"Senior ranks within the Department seem almost to be operating in parallel universe. I once again raised the disgraceful situation that in June, only 27% of Breast Cancer sufferers in the Belfast Trust were seen within 14 days, a shocking statistic given that this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month."
Responding to Mrs Dobson's comments the Department of Health provided details of breast cancer target performances in each of the Trusts.
A spokeswoman said: "There has been a fall in performance against the 14 day breast cancer target in the Belfast Trust in recent months,largely due to some short term staffing pressures.
"The Department has been closely monitoring the action being taken to address this and has been assured by the HSC Board and the Belfast Trust that performance levels are expected to reach 100% by the end of October.
“The South Eastern Trust’s performance against the 14 day target also deteriorated as a result of the Trust providing support to Belfast by accepting the transfer of patients during July and August. The Trust is putting in place additional clinics to deal with the resulting backlog and is expected to return to 100% by the end of November.
“The Southern, Northern and Western Trusts have continued to meet the target and by the end of November it is expected that all Trusts will be meeting the 14 day breast cancer target.
“There has been 18% more people seen in breast clinics this quarter, than the previous quarter and the 1,336 people seen in June 2015 was the highest number since monitoring of this target commenced in April 2009.“According to figures released through the EUROCARE 5 project in 2013, the breast cancer survival rate in Northern Ireland is the best in the UK and Ireland."