Politicians in call for Northern Ireland medical watchdog
Calls for greater transparency in Northern Ireland's health service are getting "louder and louder", politicians have said.
Their intervention follows a warning from a senior judge who investigated the serial killer doctor Harold Shipman, who murdered 250 patients before signing their death certificates.
Dame Janet Smith said there was a risk that "deliberate killings" in Northern Ireland could go undetected.
She called for the introduction of an independent medical examiner in Northern Ireland - a position already approved in England and Wales - but she fears that the Stormont impasse will prevent this.
SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan MLA backed Dame Janet's comments and claimed the public would back such a move.
He said recent high-profile cases, such as the Hyponatraemia Inquiry report and the alleged ill-treatment of patients at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, showed the demand for transparency was "rightly becoming louder and louder".
DUP health spokesman Jim Shannon MP said it was "disconcerting" the Department of Health had been left unsure of its powers to appoint a medical examiner.
Speaking to the BBC, Dame Janet added: "The deliberate killing of a patient is, thankfully, very rare.
"It is, however, a fact that the health service sometimes closes ranks in the face of criticism and is prepared to cover up failings in the system and in the conduct of medical professionals."
"I do not want to sound alarmist and I am not saying there is another Shipman out there. However, the medical examiner system was also designed to detect the cover-up of medical negligence.
"I'm sorry to say that is not uncommon, as a number of high-profile health inquiries have proved in recent years."
As Brexit continues to dominate political debate, she said it seemed "impossible" that Stormont would reconvene to make the necessary changes.
Mr Durkan said: "It's yet another example of how people are being failed by politics here.
"Karen Bradley (The Northern Ireland Secretary) passed legislation to provide clarity for civil servants.
"But there are so many instances in which we're still being told the authority to take these decisions doesn't exist."
Mr Shannon echoed the calls for a medical examiner.
"To learn that the Department of Health is unsure if the powers conferred in the Secretary of State's Bill to allow business of the country to carry on without a functioning assembly is disconcerting," he said.
"I will be contacting both the Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State to clarify and if necessary seek the changes that are needed to ensure we have this independent medical examiner (who is) able to allay fears and work with the medical staff to ensure families feel there is complete transparency and accountability."
A Department of Health Spokesperson said: "The introduction of an independent medical examiner will have implications for policy areas across government departments and will require new legislation and appropriate infrastructure to support it."