Healthcare leaders are warning that the failure to form an Executive tomorrow will put lives at risk as the health service teeters on the brink of collapse.
In a joint statement, five medical organisations representing thousands of doctors and nurses across Northern Ireland appealed to politicians to “put patients first” and return to government immediately.
“Our health service is on the verge of collapse,” they said.
“We have the longest waiting lists in the UK, emergency departments are overflowing, general practice is in crisis, and we have chronic workforce shortages, alongside burnt-out staff who are contemplating leaving the health service forever. The situation could not be more serious.”
The DUP has said it won’t enter an Executive until the protocol issue is resolved. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is refusing to say if his party will support the election of a Speaker at the first meeting of the newly-elected MLAs tomorrow.
Without a Speaker, the Assembly won’t be able to function.
The appeal for an urgent return to government was issued by the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association Northern Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, and the Royal College of GPs.
“We are appealing to our newly-elected representatives to put our health service first, form an Executive without delay,” they said.
“And, as a first step towards fixing our health service, agree a multi-year budget to allow leaders to plan and deliver services effectively. We know not having a government stalls progress.
“The lack of political stability puts basic service delivery at risk and inhibits our ability to make progress on key transformation projects including addressing our waiting lists, tackle the crisis in emergency admissions and improving capacity in general practice.
“It also means we cannot fund our elective care, mental health and cancer strategies. We cannot underestimate the huge impact this uncertainty has on the lives of patients.”
The statement added: “While we do not seek to minimise the challenges our political leaders face, it is essential that they work through them and find solutions.
“We urge all political parties to get back to the table, set aside their differences and work together to address the immediate healthcare needs of all our patients.
“The price of political failure is too severe and will be felt in the worsening health of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Michelle O’Neill said the DUP must stop blocking progress. “What we need to see is the positions filled — First Minister, Deputy First Minister, all the ministerial positions filled — and let’s get down to doing business.
“The DUP is holding society to ransom, punishing society, preventing the establishment of a Speaker and an Executive to actually respond to the things people are worried about.”
Sir Jeffrey told the BBC that his party will decide by tomorrow whether to elect a new Speaker.
He said: “We will be there on Friday. Our members will be there to sign the roll.
“We will make a decision as to how we proceed. We’ll get the group together and we’ll determine how best to take this forward. I’m waiting to see what the government has to say.”
Former First Minister Paul Givan said the DUP wanted Stormont functioning, adding: “Majority rule ended in Northern Ireland years ago. Majorities can’t dictate to anybody.
“Sinn Fein cannot get a government on Sinn Fein alone. Michelle O’Neill will not be the First Minister unless the DUP agree to establish an Executive.
“The only way that’s going to happen is whenever we find an agreement and that requires the government to move on the protocol.
“I want Sinn Fein to actually get involved and help, because they’ve said they don’t want barriers and on East/West, in the same way we don’t want barriers on a North/South, so I don’t see what Sinn Fein’s objection can be to having free trade within Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and with Great Britain.
“At the moment we don’t have that, so Sinn Fein can actually help get a government up and running, if they get on board with removing the barriers down the Irish Sea. This isn’t a difficult thing to do.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said “unionism must stand firm” and the DUP refuse to elect a Speaker. “The TUV is clear that until the protocol is rendered moribund, Stormont must remain moribund,” he said.
“Likewise, movement from unionism on mere promises and words is not an option — there has been too much double-crossing in the past for that.”