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Coronavirus: New NI health system has to prioritise staff safety, warn unions


A member of medical staff dons PPE at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh (Niall Carson/PA)

A member of medical staff dons PPE at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh (Niall Carson/PA)

A member of medical staff dons PPE at Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh (Niall Carson/PA)

Unions have cautiously welcomed plans to reform our health system in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic - but warned workplaces must be safe for employees.

Health Minister Robin Swann published the blueprint - a strategic framework for rebuilding health and social care services - this week.

It is aimed at fundamentally reshaping the system, which Mr Swann has said was in "very serious difficulties" before the coronavirus crisis.

Health trusts are set to publish proposals for tackling waiting lists, providing high-priority cancer services and dealing with other urgent conditions.

They have also plans for scaling up services in the immediate period until the end of this month.

Mr Swann has said telephone triage, video consultations and other measures used since the coronavirus outbreak will now be embedded in primary and secondary care.

Nipsa and Unison said rebuilding health and social care services must ensure the safety of staff.

Maria Morgan, health official for Nipsa, said: "Nipsa is currently considering all of the detail in the strategic papers and our Health Central Panel will respond, insisting that the rebuilding of hospital and wider community services ensures that there is safe staffing, observation of all health and safety requirements including risk assessments, and a health service that is fully funded and accountable to the public."

She added: "Any reduction, privatisation or removal of services in these plans will not be acceptable to Nipsa".

Meanwhile, Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said she shares Mr Swann's "desire" to "get the right healthcare to the people at the right time and in the right place".

"Undoubtedly lessons should have been learned from the response to the pandemic. Major contributions have been made by the frontline - from doctors and nurses to cleaners and care workers," she said.

"The fault lines in our system have been laid bare and it is to the credit of the health and social care workforce that we have been able to keep going."

Ms McKeown stressed Unison members will want assurances that their "health and safety, and the safety of the public, can be guaranteed as the health service opens up again".

"We have not yet conquered the virus and we are concerned that the Executive as a whole is moving too fast to open up society and the economy," she added.

Ms McKeown said health services do need to begin again, but warned it had to be in a safe manner for the public and the workforce.

She added: "Non-Covid patients need urgent treatment and support. The significant negative effects that Covid-19 has had on all aspects of public health and on already unacceptable health inequalities needs smart, deliverable solutions from across the entire Executive."

Under the framework, a new management board has also been created, which is expected to include senior Department of Health officials and health trusts' chief executives.

Ms McKeown said the new board must work effectively and not "simply be another bureaucratic tier in an already highly bureaucratic system", adding that new thinking requires the "direct engagement of the workforce, their trade unions and new thinkers at the table".

Meanwhile, Mr Swann has confirmed the recent consignment of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) from China will be quality checked.

"I have made clear that PPE products will only be issued to frontline staff after they are assessed," Mr Swann told this newspaper.

"I am pleased to confirm that the reports on the new consignment are positive in this regard."

In April, it emerged that part of the consignment of PPE distributed to Covid-19 test centres, mobile ambulance units and hospitals in the Irish Republic was described as "not fit for purpose" and "unusable" by medical staff.

Belfast Telegraph