Northern Ireland healthcare 'heading over cliff into full-blown crisis'
A top civil servant has warned that Northern Ireland's health service is "heading over the cliff edge into a full-blown crisis".
Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, said services here are moving into their most challenging ever period.
Speaking at a Healthcare Financial Management Association event at the Dunadry Hotel last night, Mr Pengelly said budgets remain under intense pressure while, at the same time, demand for care continues to grow.
He said: "Something has to give in that situation.
"We can see it in our growing waiting lists and the impact these have on public confidence in the system. And it's also very evident in the rising tide of frustration within our workforce.
"The Department meanwhile has to live within its budget.
"Despite our well documented financial challenges, we are getting demands on an almost daily basis for additional spending."
Mr Pengelly said his department simply does not have the money to do everything.
"Our constant refrain is that we cannot spend money we don't have," he added.
"We need to go further than that, of course, and encourage debate on priorities and how best to use the limited resources we have.
"Central to this will be progressing the transformation agenda, as mapped out in the Delivering Together and Bengoa reports.
"The way we organise services is outdated and needs to change for the sake of patients and staff.
"Change is never easy in health but it is essential.
"I have no doubt there will be many difficult decisions ahead both on reforming services and on budgetary choices.
"We can't duck those decisions. If we did, then we really will be heading over the cliff edge into a full-blown crisis," he added.
Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Roy Beggs said Mr Pengelly's comments "only confirm what patients and staff have already known for some time".
Mr Beggs said: "Whilst aspects of the local system do need reform, until the fundamental issues of tackling the shrinking number of hospital beds and filling the thousands of vacant staff posts are resolved then our already appalling waiting lists will only continue to get worse.
"Transforming some services alone will not resolve the problems. The abhorrent absence of any ministerial leadership from January 2017 has also compounded the challenges in the local health service."
Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw added: "Although there are pressures across the UK, the result in Northern Ireland is a system with particularly unacceptable waiting times for treatment and diagnosis, which mean in effect we already have two-tier healthcare dependent on ability to pay or go private.
"Brexit will only make matters worse. To fix this will mean difficult decisions in the short term for the long-term good.
"There remains a serious question mark over whether other parties are prepared to take responsibility for those."
Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said the fact that there are nearly 3,000 nursing vacancies across the system "is having a detrimental impact upon the ability to deliver patient care".
The RCN is to start balloting members on industrial and strike action over staffing and pay in Northern Ireland.