NHS facing toughest challenge ever, warns senior Northern Ireland civil servant
Next year will be one of the most challenging the health service in Northern Ireland has ever faced, staff have been warned.
The squeeze on health spending is anticipated to be "greater than anything in recent memory", the senior civil servant in charge of the Department of Health cautioned.
The health service here receives around half of Stormont's annual £10bn funding allocation.
While potential budget scenarios for the next two years envisage a ring-fencing of that £5bn, inflationary pressures within the sector, currently running at around 5-6% a year, would still mean significant real-term cuts.
The Department of Health said none of the spending scenarios outlined would free up enough money to enable it to maintain services at current levels.
In a Christmas message to Health and Social Care (HSC) staff, Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly, who is running the department in the continued absence of a local minister, offered "heartfelt thanks" for their work in 2017.
He predicted 2018 "will also be an exceptionally challenging year - indeed one of the most important in the history of the health and social care service here".
"Budget pressures are due to intensify significantly, and the projected squeeze on public funding in Northern Ireland for the next two years - for all services - is greater than anything in recent memory.
Meanwhile, the HSC has appealed to the families and friends of sick relatives to provide all the support they can after their release from hospital.
The HSC said emergency departments and GPs across Northern Ireland are facing "significant pressures" as the Christmas period kicks in.
It added that they need help from the public to free up beds and have called on the public not to attend emergency departments for minor illnesses.
Northern Trust medical director Dr Seamus O'Reilly told the BBC: "I would ask relatives, friends and neighbours to maybe consider providing some support to people when they are discharged from hospital. It could either be going in once or twice a day, it could be staying overnight with a relative who requires an extra bit of help."
Senior consultant Dr John Maxwell said patients could consider moving into a nursing home temporarily in order to free up beds.
"This would help avoid people staying in hospital longer than they need to and free up beds for other patients who require them. The vast majority of people who use emergency departments and other urgent care services receive safe, effective and quality care, but there are challenges ahead which is why we need to continue to reform our services," he said.
The Department of Health approved an additional £7m in an effort to alleviate some of the winter pressures.
But Ulster Unionist health spokesman Roy Beggs MLA said: "The situation in the health service is reaching a crisis I haven't seen for some time.
"I would say that of course family and friends should certainly do all they can to assist those leaving hospital and coming back into the community. But, there are serious problems across the services."
He blamed the Stormont crisis, rather than the health service itself. "Every effort to reform health care has been put on the back burner because some have been playing high-level party politics steeped in self-interest," he said.