Pressure on Simon Hamilton to resume post and deal with health crisis
Huge pressure is mounting on the DUP's Simon Hamilton to resume his post as Health Minister as union leaders describe the situation as "unsustainable".
As the waiting list crisis snowballs, calls from patients, unions and charities are growing for him to "get back to work".
Shocking figures reveal that almost 400,000 people across Northern Ireland are waiting for a specialist appointment or medical treatment.
Amid mounting cross-party criticism, both the British Medical Association (BMA) and Royal College of Nurses (RNC) have also said the health service needs a minister in charge to "function effectively".
Mr Hamilton, who was unavailable to talk to the Belfast Telegraph, has said he wanted to return to the post.
A DUP spokesman said the party would "not shy away from the issues facing the health service" but that serious political issues needed to be addressed first. Dr John D Woods, chair of the Northern Ireland Council of the BMA, called on politicians to urgently to resolve the political problems facing the Assembly.
"The BMA, along with many other organisations, believes the health service needs a minister in charge taking the decisions as they arise in order for it to function effectively," said Mr Woods.
"We are calling on our local representatives to resolve the political situation as soon as possible so that decisions affecting the delivery of the health service and patient care can be made."
The RCN's Janice Smyth said leadership and action was now needed.
"Obviously the minister doesn't nurse patients and provide the medical care to patients but he does provide the leadership and the accountability and while he's not there, we don't have that," she said. The calls come in the wake of serious concerns raised by Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust health body, about waiting lists in Northern Ireland. He said that "heads would roll" for this level of waiting in some of England's hospitals.
Figures reveal that 373,000 patients are currently in line for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment at hospitals across the region.
Shocking statistics show that 85,997 patients are now waiting more than four months to see a specialist for the first time.
Across all hospitals in the Belfast Trust, 5,755 are waiting for an MRI scan and there are 376 people waiting more than 26 weeks.
But leading doctors have said that waiting lists are a symptom of a bigger problem and the health system is not fit for purpose.
Dr George O'Neill, a GP and former adviser to senior health officials, said the system and model must change.
He added that expert reports including that by Sir Liam Donaldson that recommend restructuring the system, have failed to be implemented by politicians.
"We have a Victorian model of healthcare and we have to move forward," he said.
"We have to have someone in charge who can make the operational decisions."
Sir Richard Needham, a former Health Hinister for Northern Ireland in the 1980s, said the current problems were the same he experienced.
"They are all the same arguments I faced 30 years ago," he said. A DUP spokesman said: "We will not shy away from the issues facing the health service but neither will we shy away from the fact that welfare reform penalties are taking £9m every month out of public services and the need to stamp out the scourge of paramilitary activity.
"Our focus is on securing a positive outcome from talks which can deliver stable devolution and a sustainable budget for vital public services.
"Such action has only been necessary because of parties irresponsible actions on welfare reform and those who believe they can take the law into their own hands and bring murder onto our streets."
Meanwhile, the Permanent Secretary of the DHSSPS, Richard Pengelly, has been called to address the Stormont health committee about the health crisis next week.