Rows over the NI Protocol risk slowing down the pace of reform of the health service, regarded by the public as government’s number one priority, research has found.
An annual survey on government and public services from business advisory firm Deloitte found that at 70%, a slightly greater proportion of adults in Northern Ireland regarded the health service as a top priority, compared to 68% on average across the UK.
But at 39%, a greater proportion of people here regard social care for older people as a major priority, compared to 33% on average across the UK.
However, across all the UK regions there was uniform pessimism about a range of issues after 20 months of the pandemic.
Deloitte and think tank Reform questioned a total of 5,792 people across the UK for its The State of the State 2021-22 report. There were 420 people surveyed in Northern Ireland.
One in four people in Northern Ireland said social services for children and vulnerable adults should be a priority, while 18% said benefits payments should be prioritised for increased funding, compared to 13% UK-wide.
According to Deloitte, public sector leaders want to see the transformation of the whole health system so that there can be targeted investment to improve the delivery of healthcare — and that this should be prioritised over other issues ahead of next year’s Assembly election.
Marie Doyle, director at Deloitte, said: “Northern Ireland’s public sector has spent the past year dealing with the same pandemic challenges as the rest of the UK.
"But in the background, its political complexities and its unique position in the EU exit continue to set the region apart. Both issues are likely to be centre stage in the year ahead.
“But there is concern that with all of the focus on the contentious NI Protocol, the pandemic and economic recovery plans, along with other pressing issues, the necessary reform will not proceed at the pace required.
"Politicians and officials agree that health and social care reform must be a top priority and while debates in other parts of the UK often focus on funding, leaders in Northern Ireland believe we must now invest in transformation across the system to avoid an unaffordable system into the future.”
There was agreement that the proposals of the 2016 Bengoa Report into health reform should be implemented after the project was stalled due to the collapse of the Executive and the pandemic.
But Ms Doyle added: “Whether there is the political will or structures in place to make this happen is the big question.”
Nearly half of people surveyed in NI (46%) expect to see inequality between different regions get worse in coming years against only 10% who think it will get better.
One third (33%) expect fewer opportunities for young people to improve their skills, compared with 24% who expect better opportunities in future.