Belfast Telegraph

Explained: How will the £160m health budget shortfall hit Northern Ireland?

With the absence of a power-sharing Executive, last week Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley announced Northern Ireland's budget.

A number of unpopular measures slated for introduction, like hiking university fees and ending free travel for 60 to 64-year-olds, were omitted and there were increases in spending for health and education.

The Department of Health saw a 2.6% increase compared to 2018/19 - which was welcomed by the the Royal College of General Practitioners - but leaves a shortfall of around £160m.

Forecasts are that to maintain existing services the Department of Health will require £5.466bn, while it was allocated £5.306bn in Karen Bradley's budget.

So what does this mean for health spending?

Although there is a shortfall in the projected spend, no services are immediately facing cuts.

The 2.6% increase is a reflection of where this allocation is compared to the total figure for both the opening budget for 2017/18 and the in-year allocations added later.

Although a shortfall exists right now, it is possible further money will be made available later through in-year allocations.

A Department of Health source admitted it had become more dependent on in-year allocations.

These amounted to a total of £140m for 2017/18.

Money released in this period allowed for a pay increase for health service staff, additional funding for hospital waiting lists, and money to counter winter pressures in emergency departments.

Is it a given in-year allocations will be made?

While in-year allocations are possible, they are by their nature unpredictable.

The amount of extra cash made available depends on money not being spent in other parts of Government being handed back - and this uncertainty hits the Department's ability to plan for the full year.

Are services likely to be cut as a result of this?

Although no services are immediately under threat, a Department source said that "difficult decisions will be faced" should it continue to be underfunded. They added it would "continue to prioritise the delivery of safe services and best outcomes for citizens".

Along with Education, Health has traditionally been protected by comparison to other departments.

Despite this, the cost of providing health and social care services is increasing and annual increases of 5% to 6% annually will be required to keep up with demand. 

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