Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

So, how healthy are the party pledges?

The NHS remains one of the main concerns for |voters in Northern Ireland. Lisa Smyth reports on the main parties’ election promises on the key issue

The Assembly has dissolved and the battle lines have been drawn.

And as the parties launch their manifestos it is clear how important health is to the people of Northern Ireland.

While some parties barely mentioned the health service ahead of the last Assembly elections, this time around they are holding events dedicated to publicising their vision of the future of the NHS. So, how do their proposals stack up and will they deliver for patients and NHS staff?

ALTNAGELVIN RADIOTHERAPY CENTRE

Possibly one of the most controversial talking points ahead of the elections, there is no doubt the future of the unit has become a political football.

Many in the NHS were stunned when outgoing Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, a UUP candidate, announced he did not have enough money to press ahead with the facility — hours before the Assembly dissolved. Naturally enough, the other parties have used this to their advantage.

The SDLP, Alliance, DUP and Sinn Fein have all said they want the unit to be completed on schedule. However, none of them have given details on where the funding will be found.

BUDGET

The next Health Minister will have to deliver services to more people than ever at a time when budgets are being slashed and health officials are warning the NHS is financially broke.

All the parties acknowledge significant challenges lie ahead in delivering high-quality health services. Working more efficiently comes high on the agenda.

While doctors have called for debate over the number of acute hospitals here, it is hardly surprising the controversial subject has been met with a lukewarm response from politicians.

NHS WORKFORCE

The DUP has proposed measures to tackle violence against staff, which is to be welcomed, but unfortunately these have been overshadowed by an ill-judged comment by the party leader.

Mr Robinson said: “We can’t allow the health service to be run on the basis of where consultants find it most convenient to work.”

Even those who can excuse his remarks may find it harder to ignore DUP plans to introduce a system which would allow trusts to force consultants to rotate around hospitals in an effort to address staff shortages. Indeed, the British Medical Association has said this would “ensure we have a third-class health system”.

Sinn Fein and the UUP have fared slightly better when it comes to their plans for NHS staff — they want to support them and ensure they can train to the highest standard.

PUBLIC HEALTH

The Alliance Party manifesto has pledged action to tackle smoking-related illnesses, alcohol misuse and obesity levels.

The SDLP, UUP and Sinn Fein have said they want to tackle inequalities which they believe contribute to poor health.

All the parties have said they want to continue work to address poor mental health here.

Certainly, it would appear our main political parties have given a great deal of thought to the future of the health service.

Some have laid out more ambitious plans than others in service delivery over the next four years.

Of course, there is the small matter of finance which will be required to fulfil all the promises.

But what may be even more crucial is whether our new MLAs have the political will to ensure they do not just press ahead with popular policies, but are willing to make more difficult decisions which put the patient first — regardless of the political cost.

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