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Health Minister McGimpsey argues against NHS cuts

By Lisa Smyth

As Executive prepares to thrash out how it will make £128m in savings, the Health Minister argues the case for leaving the NHS out of the equation

The Health Minister is preparing for the biggest challenge of his political career as crunch talks between the Executive on Northern Ireland budget cuts loom.

Chancellor George Osbourne has told the Northern Ireland Assembly it must find £128m of savings and the Executive is due to thrash the matter out tomorrow.

Michael McGimpsey is expected to come out fighting as he tries to convince his Executive colleagues his budget must be protected from any further cuts — which many believe could bring the health service to its knees.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McGimpsey strongly denied there were inefficiencies in the Department of Health.

And he issued a stark warning to politicians who fail to support his call for health to be ring-fenced from the cuts.

“Not supporting the health service is a derogation of responsibility, there is absolutely no doubt about that,” he said.

“If I don’t have the money, I have explained before what the consequences will be. We deal with folk who are in pain and distress. Everything from children who need protected to elderly people who can’t look after themselves and everything in the middle. There is a social contract in the UK that is the health service provides those services free at the point of delivery.

“The health service has the monopoly on that, there is no-one else doing it. It isn’t as though you can go and buy a heart operation, child protection or radiology. You can’t do it. There is a responsibility on the government and the Executive to deliver this.”

As the health service has slipped deeper into financial difficulties, health bosses have come under fire for the way valuable resources are being used.

Mr McGimpsey said: “Health is the only department to have implemented the Review of Public Administration (RPA). Education hasn’t, environment hasn’t, no other department has, so the RPA savings are in the bag.

“Also, our productivity is up 7% in last two years and staff are treating far more people than they ever did. We have extra numbers going through A&E and more day case patients.

“If you look at it pro rata in terms of the block grant, Northern Ireland health is down by about £600m compared to the rest of the UK countries and education is also slightly down. Ironically, the two key departments are down.

“Other departments are seriously over proportion of the grant and wouldn’t get the kind of money they get in England, such as Department of Employment and Learning, Department of Agriculture and Department of the Environment.”

Mr McGimpsey said “the notion that health is inefficient and big savings can be found is nonsense.

“It is hiding your head in the sand and putting off asking other big questions that need to be asked,” he said.

“There is a fallacy you can walk in and find lots of easy money in health. That is political cowardice that avoids facing up to other difficult decisions.

“A lot of this is political. The Executive is dysfunctional. When we had the debate on £700m efficiencies to come out of health, my party voted against that and the DUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance voted to take it out of health.

“When I argued health should be excused from any cuts, not efficiencies, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance all voted for cuts.”

The Health Minister said suggestions that the service was not efficient were a slur on staff.

“We have a very good, first class health service, with very good doctors and nurses and all the folks who do a first class job and people in Northern Ireland should be proud of and should be rallying for,” he added.

“When people run around talking about inefficiencies, they are really saying our doctors and nurses are not working hard enough and there are too many of them. These are slurs by insinuation and snide remarks and sneers we’re getting from political quarters.

“I will make the arguments for health and on their heads be it if they don’t support me. They can’t be allowed to vote for cuts and protest those cuts later as though it is nothing to do with them.”

Questions and answers

Q Lisa Smyth: Will you be able to convince the Executive to ring-fence health?

A Michael McGimpsey: I don’t know. I will make the arguments and on their heads be it if they don’t support me. They can’t be allowed to vote for cuts and protest those cuts later as though it is nothing to do with them.

Q If further cuts are imposed, will the health service be fit for purpose?

A You can only do the activity with the resources available. More patients will go through pain and distress if they can’t get the treatment when they need it.

Q The figures are very stark. Why can’t you get the |support of your Assembly |colleagues?

A There is a lot of politicking going on. We are not a functional Executive. By saying the health service is not efficient you are effectively saying you have too many doctors and nurses and they don’t work hard enough and I deny and refute this. I believe all our staff work hard to deliver a first class service people in Northern Ireland should be proud of.

Q Do you understand why people in rural areas feel they are disadvantaged when there are so many A&Es in greater Belfast? Is that fair?

A I keep saying I don’t do equity of geography, I do equity of outcome. We don’t have the resources to justify full blown A&Es at some of those rural locations but everyone lives within an hour of an A&E by ambulance.

Q Do you regret the handling of the closure of Mid Ulster and Whiteabbey A&Es?

A The plan was this would happen early next year, everyone knew it was coming and it had been widely consulted on but on April 26 I met with senior people from the Northern Trust, including clinicians, who said the service would not be safe by the end of May and something had to be done. I had simply no choice but to act, but unfortunately it was right slap bang in the middle of the elections and under Assembly rules I am not allowed to make any announcements but as soon as I was, I made the announcement.

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