Union threatens legal action over £70m cuts to NHS budget
A leading medical union has said it may go to the High Court to stop potentially dangerous cuts to Northern Ireland's health service.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) in Northern Ireland has said it is considering taking a judicial review over controversial plans to slash £70m from the NHS budget.
It comes just days before the five health trusts decide whether they will rubber-stamp cost-cutting proposals, including a dramatic reduction in community care packages, hospital beds and staffing levels.
The plans have been branded as unsafe by medical unions and patient groups, who have warned they will drive up hospital waiting times and put even more pressure on primary care services that are already at breaking point.
Health bosses were ordered in August to make £70m savings in order to balance the books.
A six-week public consultation on subsequent proposed cuts to services only closed last week.
Tom Sullivan, CSP public affairs and policy manager, said he is extremely concerned that it is impossible to properly consider any concerns raised during the process.
"It does make you think that this is simply a box-ticking exercise and the cuts are a fait accompli," he said.
"The consultation process itself has not been handled well, it has been taken forward with haste that makes you question the integrity of the process.
"The consultation only lasted six weeks when it would normally take 12.
"I understand there is an urgency about this, but it is equally important that the views and concerns raised during the process are considered and reviewed diligently. I don't believe this can be done given the timescales we are dealing with and I think it undermines the consultation process.
"If they have been able to turn this around in less than a week then they need to demonstrate that otherwise it leaves them open to legal challenges, particularly under the Gunning Principles (rules to ensure fairness).
"We, the CSP, cannot rule out the possibility of a judicial review in order to stop these cuts from happening."
Health bosses have also come under fire for the lack of publicity regarding the upcoming trust board meetings where the decisions will be made.
It has also emerged they are all being held on Friday and members of the public have complained they will only be able to attend one of the meetings.
Mr Sullivan's concerns have been echoed by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, who said the consultation process has been "fundamentally flawed".
The west Belfast politician said: "A week is simply not enough time to seriously consider the feedback from the public.
"Public meetings across the north have illustrated not only the opposition to the proposed cuts, but also the depth of anger at the way the process has been carried out.
"It seriously calls into question the integrity of the consultation process and whether it was ever intended to meaningfully engage with the public."
SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan said the trusts may be open to legal action.
"While the trusts will say they have a legal obligation to balance the books - I believe this is far outweighed by their legal, professional and moral obligation to protect patient safety and the highest standards of deliver of care," he said.
"Trusts must prove the consultation was not simply a box-ticking exercise and ensure that adequate time and consideration is afforded to reviewing the consultation responses."
It is understood a cash injection from the upcoming monitoring round or the establishment of a working Executive at Stormont are the only way the planned cuts will not go ahead.
However, it is not known whether any additional cash will be released before the cuts are implemented.