Belfast Telegraph

Lisa Smyth: Next health minister will have Stormont's most challenging brief

The most senior civil servant in the health service has made the case for a financial package from Westminster to save the NHS in Northern Ireland
The most senior civil servant in the health service has made the case for a financial package from Westminster to save the NHS in Northern Ireland
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

The most senior civil servant in the health service has made the case for a financial package from Westminster to save the NHS in Northern Ireland.

In a briefing to politicians in Belfast on Thursday, Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly spelled out exactly how much money he needs to bring the health service back from the brink of disaster.

Thousands of health workers are embroiled in crippling industrial action. Patients are dying on hospital trolleys and while waiting for hospital appointments.

Police officers are attending patients who have suffered cardiac arrests because there aren't enough paramedics to respond to 999 calls.

Northern Ireland is short of 320 community pharmacists to provide a safe service, and cash-strapped health trusts are spending millions of pounds every year on agency staff.

Whether we like it or not, it is no exaggeration to say the health service is currently in meltdown.

Of course, the DUP and Sinn Fein have come under fire for campaigning for better pay for health workers when changes were made under their watch.

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Despite some cynicism about their motives, the fact that our politicians are finally sitting down together in one room and discussing how to save the health service is to be welcomed, particularly as Secretary of State Julian Smith has said that they alone are the people to resolve the issues.

Time will tell if they can set aside their differences and return to a power-sharing Executive before the January 13 deadline.

However, assuming that they can do this, the new health minister will undoubtedly have the most difficult brief at Stormont.

The most pressing issues - pay parity for staff, hospital waiting lists and the transformation agenda - will cost many millions of pounds to address.

The Secretary of State has said he will take the matter to the Treasury - but will Westminster be willing to provide the cash injection that any new health minister will need?

Sources have suggested that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is keen to see the problem of Northern Ireland resolved on his watch. This means that Westminster may be more likely to provide a financial rescue package for the health service - but even if this happens, the future of the NHS is far from guaranteed.

As well as long-term investment, the way the health service is run must be radically overhauled and some of the changes may be hugely unpopular, in the beginning at least.

As we have seen already with the proposals for breast cancer treatment and stroke services, a change to the status quo is frequently controversial.

So, it will take a minister willing to put the future of the health service ahead of their own political career.

Whatever happens over the coming weeks, it will be a long road before our ailing health service is restored to its former glory.

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