Arlene Foster hails NHS on anniversary but insists reform now essential
Arlene Foster has said Northern Ireland should cherish the NHS and people here are fortunate to have a health service that relies less on private hospitals than the Republic.
The DUP leader was speaking ahead of the 70th anniversary of the NHS tomorrow.
She said reforming the health service would be the most important job facing any new Stormont Executive.
And she praised Sinn Fein vice-president and former Health Minister Michelle O'Neill for bringing forward the Bengoa proposals for reforming the NHS here.
Mrs Foster described the NHS as a "revolution in healthcare". She said: "It has, over the course of its seven decades, earned a special place in the hearts of so many people across the UK.
"It is one of our enduring institutions. It is recognised and respected internationally. And it is something which unites all of us across the political spectrum."
But Mrs Foster said it needed to be transformed.
"I am, though, not blind to the need for the health service to modernise and change," she said.
"That ability to evolve has been part of its success over seven decades. We have four slightly different versions now tailored to each devolved region of the UK, but every one unmistakably part of a National Health Service."
Mrs Foster said the key principle of the NHS was its universal nature.
"It is a service for everyone. We only need to look across the border to our nearest neighbour in the Irish Republic, where GP consultations or emergency department attendances bring charges for the patient, and where a much greater emphasis is placed on private hospitals and healthcare, to see the difference," she said.
But the NHS could not afford to stand still, Mrs Foster insisted. "Here in Northern Ireland we have our own specific challenges," she added.
"Though we are fortunate, in the Bengoa Report, to have a roadmap that other jurisdictions don't as yet to an improved and sustainable service.
"Former DUP Health Ministers Edwin Poots and Simon Hamilton saw the need for transformation, established strong relationships with Professor Bengoa and, through their actions, contributed to bringing us to the place where fundamental reform can be realised.
"The consensus that they helped build was taken forward by Michelle O'Neill, culminating with the last Executive embracing the Bengoa vision.
"In my view health transformation is the most important task facing a restored Northern Ireland government.
"Our existing model was designed for the circumstances of the middle of the last century. The challenges have changed."
Mrs Foster said transformation would make the NHS "fit for purpose for patients and staff and capable of enduring for the next 70 years".
Reforming the NHS was a priority for the DUP, she said.
"That is why we made a pre-election commitment to invest an additional £1 billion. We have already made substantial progress towards that goal even in the absence of devolved government," she said.
"As a result of the additional £1.5bn secured through our confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, £50m per year is being allocated for two years to tackle immediate pressures in health and education.
"A further £100m per year for two years will support health service transformation."
Mrs Foster said the absence of devolved government was "extremely frustrating" and acted "as a brake on progress" but the DUP was "making the most of this enforced limbo period to firm up and finesse as much of the policy work in advance as possible".
She continued: "Our health professionals today are passionate about making improvements. Civil servants have been doing what they can but political leaders are needed to take the key decisions to make the Bengoa vision a reality.
"By the NHS's 75th birthday, let's have in place a palpably different and improved service, easily accessible, with its focus on local communities and putting the patient first.
"And by its 80th let's aim for the NHS in Northern Ireland to be an international exemplar where people from across the world come to see how real transformation can be achieved."