Seven-day NHS gets Northern Ireland Health Minister Hamilton's backing
Health Minister Simon Hamilton has spoken of his support for a "seven-day NHS" operating in Northern Ireland.
His comments come after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was prepared to impose seven-day working on hospital doctors in England.
The BMA has said although there is public support for more weekend services, there is no clear plan on how this will be delivered.
Mr Hunt said a "Monday to Friday culture" in parts of the NHS had "tragic consequences" and that 6,000 people died each year because of this.
He added that if the BMA would not agree to weekend working after a six-week negotiating period, "we are ready to impose a new contract".
Mr Hamilton said he welcomed the debate for a seven-day NHS.
"It isn't accurate to say that our health service doesn't operate 24/7," he said.
"It does. But it doesn't to the same level that it does Monday to Friday, nine to five," he said.
"It is in all of our interests to address the issue of a seven-day service," Mr Hamilton added.
"Not only will patients see a consistent level of service but the fact that they may, as a result, spend less time in hospital means that other patients will get the care they need when they need and not have to wait."
Mr Hamilton said: "What is sometimes referred to as 'out-of-hours' is in fact the majority of the week.
"What I want to see is us moving progressively towards a seven-day NHS in Northern Ireland, one where patients and people don't notice a difference between a weekday and a weekend."
He said he had a "keen interest" in the response of the various trade unions to the Secretary of State's call for change.
Dr Sara Hedderwick from the BMA in Northern Ireland said doctors here supported more seven-day hospital services but questioned how it would be financed.
"In reality most doctors do already work at the weekends, so this is a much broader issue than just doctors' contracts, we need to ensure that by implementing a seven-day service there isn't a reduction in midweek services or fewer doctors on wards Monday to Friday," she said.
"We also need to ensure all the support staff needed - radiographers, phlebotomists, nurses, theatre staff, porters, pharmacists - are also available to patients because consultants are just one member of the team of people supporting patients.
"All of this will cost money - we need to ensure that making it mandatory for consultants to work at the weekends doesn't mean holes appear elsewhere in the already stretched budget."
Meanwhile, the Royal College of General Practitioners has said Mr Hunt's comments would "sound the alarm bells" for GPs who fear they will be next in line.
Earlier this year Chief Medical Officer and interim chief executive of the Belfast Trust Dr Michael McBride accepted there was a need for more senior doctors on the hospital floor on an around-the-clock basis.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the public should have easy access to 24-hour, seven days a week care.
"The NHS is a publicly tax-funded service and should be built around the needs of patients," she said.
"The Patients Association do not believe that it is for the doctors' unions to decide how a public-funded service should be run.
"The NHS is not there for the benefit of professionals.
"Patients can't pick and choose when they need to use it and doctors can't pick and choose when they want to work in it."