Ward closures, fewer staff and services facing shutdown as cuts bite in bid to save £70m
There is anger after it emerged that Northern Ireland's hospitals are facing the grim prospect of ward closures, fewer doctors and nurses and the shutdown of services as cutbacks are enforced.
The crisis is the result of Health Trust chiefs being forced to find £70m in savings before next April.
Last night, health professionals warned the need to save money could take priority over services to patients.
The Royal Colleges said cuts will be made "for the purpose of balancing the books rather than to ensure that the best possible services are being delivered to patients".
The Royal College of Nursing sounded alarm bells that the collapse of some services appears to be inevitable.
The warnings came after the province's five Health Trust Boards held separate meetings yesterday.
They were told cuts to locum doctors and nursing staff, ward closures and the cancellation of non-urgent operations are among the main options to save £10m a month over the next seven months.
Health Trust board chiefs have admitted they will have to consider reductions to agency staff - primarily nurses - or to locum contracts, mainly GPs.
And the Belfast Health Trust Board said it might have to close three wards - a total of 65 beds, reducing access for elective surgery patients.
A recently-opened inpatient ward at the Ulster Hospital could also be effectively mothballed.
Around 150 temporary staff are facing the prospect of redundancy, following a six-week consultation period with the public which begins today.
The difficulty facing the five Trust Boards is that the savings have to be almost immediate, with staff salary savings a relatively simple way of saving money in the short term.
The Medical Colleges, which include the Royal College of General Practitioners, as well as child health specialists and anaesthetists said: "On behalf of medical professionals across Northern Ireland, we call on political leaders to hear our concerns and take urgent action to address them."
Their joint statement warned the current situation is "unsustainable".
"The issues we are facing are numerous: sustained challenges in general practice; daily pressures in emergency departments; challenges in the management and provision of appropriate and dignified care for frail older people," they said.
They also pinpointed "some of the poorest child health outcomes in Western Europe; some of the longest waiting times in the UK for a range of scheduled procedures and imaging tests; gaps in the physical healthcare of those with mental illness and intellectual disability and the workforce crises in medicine (resulting in a) reliance on locum staff; nursing shortages, and many other challenges".
Janice Smyth, Director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland said: "It is inevitable that this will cause the collapse of some services.
"We believe that this will have a catastrophic impact on the nursing workforce and the care they are able to give to patients.
"The majority of nurses are working unpaid hours in an attempt to provide the best care for patients.
"Nurses have reported that they are concerned that there are not enough staff to do their jobs properly and are reporting errors, near misses or incidents involving patients.
"A growing number of nurses are concerned that their nursing practice is being compromised as is their ability to deliver safe care. This experience is having a negative impact on nurses' health and wellbeing and sickness absence levels are increasing.
"Pressures within the system have led many nurses to make career decisions to leave full-time employment and work for nurse banks or agencies, or to leave the profession."
She said the RCN will strongly oppose any additional cost-saving measures.
Dr John D Woods, chair of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland Council, said: "The potential impact on both patient care and our members care cannot be underestimated."
And he warned the loss of locums would have a knock-on impact on already overworked full-time GPs.
"We have consistently said the issue of a lack of doctors across all trusts and specialities needs [to be] addressed. Ongoing use of locums is simply not sustainable financially, nor is it best for patient care," he said.
"We need significant and meaningful service transformation so that we have service and a workforce that is fit for the future."
Roisin Foster, chief executive of Cancer Focus NI, said the situation was "very worrying indeed" with direct impacts on patient care leading to longer waiting times.
"We also badly need a new cancer strategy. In the meantime, it is the vulnerable who suffer most. We need our politicians back in Stormont to give proper leadership and to sort this out."
Trade unions in the health service were also incensed. Kevin McCabe assistant Secretary of NIPSA accused health service chiefs of cynically taking advantage of the political impasse at Stormont.