Northern Ireland's embattled health service should not be used as a political football in the run-up to next May's Assembly elections, Robin Swann has warned.
The Health Minister has said attempts to rebuild and revitalise the health service in Northern Ireland must not be hijacked by politicians hoping to win votes and he has called on his Stormont colleagues to support transformation that will result in better patient outcomes.
Mr Swann was speaking at the Assembly yesterday as he outlined plans for the health service as Northern Ireland begins to move out of lockdown.
It will see more services offered on a regional basis, meaning patients may have to travel further for hospital appointments and operations.
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath referred to rumours that some hospitals are facing closure and the impact this has on attracting and retaining staff, and asked Mr Swann to give a commitment that the entire health service estate will be used during the rebuilding efforts.
"I thank the member for his comment because I believe that some of his councillors have actually started a campaign for a long-term commitment to the Downe and the Daisy Hill and again, it's that sort of language that then unnerves staff," said Mr Swann.
"Because there is nothing more unnerving than social media campaigns for the people who are working in our health service at this minute in time about saving their hospital when their hospital is not under threat, so I would ask the member and some of his party colleagues to step away from the party political campaigns and actually look to support the staff who are working in it and the entirety of the service that is being delivered in those facilities as well.
"We don't have enough staff, we need more staff, so there is nobody going to be done away with. We don't have a big enough footprint so we need every square foot that we have, but it may not be that everybody gets every service that they want delivered on their doorstep.
"That has to be the reality if we're to address the waiting lists that we're talking about here today. Now is the time to actually implement those changes and stop talking about them."
Official figures show more than 320,000 patients were waiting for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment; over 105,000 were waiting for inpatient or day-case treatment; and around 145,000 for a diagnostic test at the end of 2020.
Health trusts have put together plans to rebuild services in the wake of the latest Covid-19 surge, including setting up Covid-19 free pathways to increase the number of operations being carried out and the creation of regional surgical services so those most in need are seen quicker.
In a hard-hitting address to the Assembly yesterday, Mr Swann also warned he cannot begin to address Northern Ireland's waiting list shame without a "recurrent funding commitment".
He warned that without this, Northern Ireland "will be fighting the scourge of waiting lists with at least one hand tied behind our backs" and continued: "Tragically, as it stands, I cannot make any sustainable inroads into improving the waiting list position I have just outlined.
"The present funding model which we operate within is not fit for purpose. I cannot think of a more pressing issue facing us than waiting times. It cries out for action. It is a daily rebuke to the standing of this House and to the reputation of politics."