Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Urgent health decisions held up due to lack of Northern Ireland government

By Jonathan Bell

Northern Ireland health care reform, action on ensuring the NHS lives within its budget and a pay award for staff are among the 19 items requiring a health minister, it has been revealed.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs revealed the scale of the logjam within the Department of Health due to the lack of a functioning Executive after a Freedom of Information request.

However he said it would just be the tip of the iceberg given the mounting problems in the health service.

“It is scandalous that within the Department of Health alone there are so many pieces of legislation and key strategies stalled due to there not being a minister in place to sign them off," he said.

Northern Ireland has been without a government after Sinn Fein pulled down the institutions in January 2017. There has been confusion as to what power civil servants have.

Earlier this year a judge ruled the Department of Infrastructure had no power to approve a multi-million pound incinerator project as the decision should be taken by a minister.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has said she will bring forward legislation in Westminster to clarify the extent of powers those in the civil service have in a bid to allow government to continue to function without political leadership.

Mr Beggs found 13 strategies required ministerial imput. They include an evaluation of the Bamford review into mental health services, policy on GP services, agreement on minimum pricing of alcohol and a suicide prevention strategy.

There were six pieces of legislation awaiting Assembly approval. They included laws on supporting breastfeeding in public, e-cigarettes restrictions and a response to a ban on people smoking in cars with children.

Mr Beggs stressed those issues were just those that had been though the necessary planning and development. He said in the 600 days since the Executive's collapse the crisis in the health service had "deepened to the extent patients are coming to harm, thousands of positions across the health service are vacant and the gap between demand and capacity of the local system has widened even further".

He added: "Even the 2018/19 pay award for our doctors and nurses remains up in the air, despite being already finalised in England, Scotland and Wales. We are now half way through the financial year without a local decision.

“Another key decision outstanding are what actions are required to live within Budget for 2019/20. The last time the Health Department used language like that was in summer 2017 when each of Northern Ireland’s five health trusts announced sweeping cuts in a desperate attempt to make £70m of emergency savings.

"The later changes are left in the health service the higher the impact it has on frontline patient services.

“Most of the issues in the list however are non-contentious and have cross-party support yet they can’t be advanced simply because there is no mechanism in place in the absence of an Executive.

“The Secretary of State has allowed the stalemate to run on for far too long. Most, if not all, of these delays could have been avoided had she acted much quicker to put some form of decision making in place before now.

“Without a Minister in place to take and implement health decisions, our waiting lists will continue to get even longer and the community will suffer.

"The Prime Minister has a responsibility to everyone in the UK.  A meeting of the Assembly should be called and if local politicians fail to appoint a functioning Executive, the Prime Minster needs to step in and appoint a direct rule Health Minister to end the drift in healthcare.”

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