£700m hope for Northern Ireland as May vows to boost health service
The health service in Northern Ireland could get a cash boost of up to £700m each year over four years as the Prime Minister unveils a £20bn bonus for the NHS.
Theresa May has said the NHS in England is to get an extra £20bn a year by 2023 as a 70th birthday present.
The other UK regions, including Northern Ireland, will get a percentage of this, although exact figures will not be known until the Chancellor announces his budget later in the year.
The additional money will then be allocated to the Department of Finance, with the first tranche being made available in the 2019/20 financial year.
Under normal circumstances, the Finance Minister and Executive would decide how the money would be shared out among the various departments.
In the absence of an Executive, however, it is likely this task will fall to the civil servants at Stormont. As a result, the money may not all go towards health and social care in Northern Ireland.
Janice Smyth, the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, welcomed the announcement and stressed that it must all be invested in the NHS. "Everyone knows that the health service is underfunded so any additional money is a good thing," she said. "As far as we are concerned this is money for health and should go to health and nowhere else.
"It does have the potential to address the issues being faced by the health service in Northern Ireland and certainly, if I was a patient waiting for a hospital bed or an appointment, I would be thinking that this money was going to enable me to get my care."
Leading economist John Simpson said the money is the biggest investment in the health service he has seen in his lifetime and that it could substantially address the ongoing NHS crisis in Northern Ireland.
"I would like to see the money go towards addressing hospital waiting lists, with the likes of the elective care centres, and an increase in the number of domiciliary care packages," he said.
"It should also be used to address the shortage of doctors and nurses."
Ms Smyth said the benefits of the additional cash could be constrained by the current workforce difficulties. In particular, she referred to the thousands of nursing vacancies across the independent and public sectors in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, experts have warned that, contrary to Mrs May's claims of a Brexit dividend funding the cash boost, it is likely that the taxpayer will have to foot the bill.
Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey said: "At the moment, it would appear this is being funded by borrowed money and going forward, we can't do that. It is going to have to be paid for by increased taxation."
The news of the additional funding comes as the health service in Northern Ireland is already benefiting from the DUP's confidence and supply deal with the Tories.
Last week, it was announced that some of the money will go towards struggling GP surgeries, and helping to secure the future of the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry.
The Department of Finance spokesperson said: "The Treasury has yet to advise on the implications for Northern Ireland of the additional funding provided for the NHS in England as announced today.
"We would expect to get further detail soon."