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Westminster must act to stop Northern Ireland health service collapse: report

NI Affairs Committee chair Simon Hoare
NI Affairs Committee chair Simon Hoare

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's politicians have two months to form an Executive or Westminster must step in to stop the health service here from collapsing, it has been warned.

The lack of an Assembly has pushed the NHS in Northern Ireland to "the point of collapse", according to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Key services, including cancer care, mental health services and community pharmacy, are all struggling to cope due to chronic underfunding and no proper strategies, the committee has said.

Publishing the findings of its report, it said the NHS has been pushed to "breaking point" and warned that delay to address the situation "is no longer an option".

Chair of the committee, Simon Hoare, said: "The stark reality is that the Northern Ireland health service is falling behind the rest of the UK.

"An approach to funding that simply keeps things ticking over, and an absence of over-arching strategy in key areas, has left services at breaking point and this situation must end as soon as possible.

"Health services need the funding and long-term security necessary to allow them to transform and innovate, to truly address the short and long-term pressures they will face.

"We have called for the Government to end the insecurity and set three-year minimum budget allocations to give vital services the space to breath and look ahead.

"We also expect more regular updates on the progress in developing strategies in key areas, particularly cancer services and mental health.

"The UK Government must also accept that, while decisions over the direction of Northern Ireland health services should be taken by the Executive, delay is no longer an option.

Alliance's Paula Bradshaw
Alliance's Paula Bradshaw

"Should Stormont not form this year, they must take action in the interim otherwise vital services will only deteriorate further."

The committee has made a series of recommendations to ensure the future of the health service in Northern Ireland.

It highlighted an alarming disparity in funding of mental health services in Northern Ireland compared to England.

In 2016/17, mental health services here were allocated 5.2% of the health budget, while 13.3% of the budget in England was given to mental health services.

It also raised concerns over the fact that the confidence and supply money has been used to keep services afloat, questioning what will happen once this funding runs out.

The committee also called for urgent action to bring down suicide rates in Northern Ireland, referring to the "suicide epidemic" here.

Referring to cancer services, the report noted that Stormont's 31-day target has not been met for almost six years.

It also said the information being recorded does not actually reveal the full waiting times being endured by cancer patients, who it said are resorting to self-funding life-saving treatments.

Nursing vacancy rates were also singled out as an issue, while the committee also made recommendations regarding oral health and community pharmacy here.

Organisations that represent community pharmacy and dental services have repeatedly warned they are being pushed to breaking point as a result of underfunding.

Gerard Greene, chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, has welcomed the findings of the report.

Meanwhile, Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said: "This urgency in this report shows also that the absence of Stormont re-emphasises the need for voters to overcome the stale orange and green politics of the past and send to Westminster candidates pledging to represent Northern Ireland as a united community, and to be willing proactively to highlight and deliver on the key issues which affect everyone's daily lives here."

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