Belfast Telegraph

Tackling Northern Ireland's waiting lists could cost 50m annually for the next seven years

Secretary of State Julian Smith (third from right) hosts a summit at Stormont with politicians including Michelle O’Neill, Edwin Poots, Nichola Mallon and Steve Aiken to try to solve the spiralling health service crisis
Secretary of State Julian Smith (third from right) hosts a summit at Stormont with politicians including Michelle O’Neill, Edwin Poots, Nichola Mallon and Steve Aiken to try to solve the spiralling health service crisis
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

The Department of Health needs £50m a year for the next seven years to bring hospital waiting lists under control, it can be revealed.

Officials have also made a case for £150m a year for at least the next five years in order to push through crucial transformation in the way the local health service is run.

The eye-watering sums were revealed at a meeting on Thursday to discuss the crisis. It was attended by Northern Ireland's most senior civil servants and politicians.

Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, outlined the most pressing issues currently facing the health service and the amount of money needed to address them.

During the briefing, Mr Pengelly also reiterated that he needs £30m a year to pay health workers here the same as their counterparts in Great Britain.

It is understood that Secretary of State Julian Smith is to appeal to the Treasury for additional funds that would allow a new Executive to fix the deepening crisis.

During the meeting, Mr Smith asked parties to commit to long-term measures to resolve the heath crisis as part of the talks process.

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These included pay parity for staff, the implementation of a three-year pay deal, a commitment to safer staffing, the delivery of 1,000 new nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years and an action plan on waiting times.

Mr Smith has been met with accusations that he is using the issues facing the local health service as political leverage to force the parties back into government.

While he has said this is not the case, he stressed once again at the meeting that it is the responsibility of politicians in Northern Ireland to address the health crisis.

The picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Belfast on Wednesday
The picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Belfast on Wednesday

Speaking afterwards, Alliance health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said: "This meeting rightly went beyond financial asks. It was emphasised that health cannot be abused as a partisan political issue during the complex but essential transformation process on which we have embarked.

"We need communication across all parties about key decisions during this process but also a public acceptance that a universal, world-class health service into the 2020s cannot be delivered without reconfiguration and transformation."

The meeting is the latest development in efforts to restore the Executive.

It was one of a series of talks taking place this week after last week's general election, which was bruising for both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

It also took place after thousands of healthcare workers staged a mass walk-out in their fight for better pay and conditions.

There was widespread disruption across the health service as members of Nipsa, Unison, Unite and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) took part in the combined strike.

It was the first time in the 103-year history of the RCN that the organisation has taken such action.

Unions have raised serious concerns over patient safety amid a widening pay gap between its members and the rest of the UK.

Health officials have said that staffing shortages played a role in the spiralling hospital waiting lists. More than 300,000 people are now waiting for a first outpatient appointment and the scandal has reached the point where some people are dying on waiting lists.

An increasing number of people are also using their savings to fund private treatments for painful and debilitating conditions.

Meanwhile, a paramedic has warned the full impact of this week's strike action may not be seen until the weekend.

"You will have a lot of people who stayed away from the emergency departments on Wednesday because of the strike," he explained.

"But now that it's over, it's likely you will see more people turning up or ringing for an ambulance over the next couple of days. I think it could prove to be a quite a busy weekend for the accident and emergency departments and ambulance crews."

The political parties have been given a deadline of January 13 to re-establish an Executive.

However, the health unions have further strike action planned for January 8 and 10. This could have catastrophic consequences as it will happen in the middle of winter pressures.

Health officials are also preparing for the possibility of the arrival of a deadly strain of the flu virus that has claimed more than 600 lives in Australia.

The head of the RCN in Northern Ireland has warned that the local health service will suffer irreparable damage if urgent action is not taken to address the growing number of problems it is facing.

Pat Cullen said: "The health service is in crisis. We have 306,000 people on the waiting list for a hospital appointment and we have a severe nursing shortage, which is highlighted by the NMC figures.

"Our members have been out on strike to fight for patient safety and to improve conditions for everyone.

"Quite simply, we cannot afford to wait any longer to address the problems facing the health service. Another winter like this and the health service will be irreparably damaged."

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