Belfast Telegraph

Michelle O'Neill: Sinn Fein believes world-class universal health care should be at the heart of a modern, civilised society

Michelle O'Neill with Rafael Bengoa
Michelle O'Neill with Rafael Bengoa

By Michelle O'Neill

In the coming weeks, thousands of local health and social care (HSC) workers are taking industrial action to demand better pay and conditions.

They are also striking for staffing levels that actually keep patients and staff safe.

Sinn Fein unequivocally supports health and social care workers as they take this action.

This is not a decision they have arrived at easily, but it is a necessary one.

They are striking for conditions that better reflect their invaluable contribution to society and to our health service. But they are also striking to protect us and save our health service.

For a decade, Tory austerity has eroded the capacity of the health and social care services. Staff now feel that these cuts are making their life-saving work impossible.

Sinn Fein understood these profound challenges when we chose to lead the Department of Health in the last Executive.

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Sinn Fein was the only party to actively make the choice to lead the Department of Health. We did so to confront the difficult issues and implement the reforms that were needed.

When other parties had the chance to pick the health department, they looked the other way.

In contrast, Sinn Fein did grasp the nettle. When I launched the Bengoa report for health and social care, I was determined that it wouldn't be the latest in a string of health reports to lie dormant gathering dust.

Alongside the Bengoa report, I published my action plan, 'Health and Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together', to kickstart the transformation of health and social care.

And although I secured cross-party support for this approach, I was clear from the outset that the success of this vision would depend on an end to austerity and an increase in health funding.

Put simply, the NHS in the north needs investment and recruitment of staff to levels that doesn't jeopardise the wellbeing of our patients.

In light of this fact, we are all paying the price of the DUP's disastrous pact with the Tories since 2017 and for their support for Tory austerity in the years before.

In June 2017, 10 DUP MPs voted to maintain the pay cap on public sector and healthcare workers.

Only months ago, the DUP once again filed in behind their Tory partners in government to block an attempt by British Labour to protect the NHS from privatisation in any post-Brexit trade deals.

The DUP's uncompromising Brexit extremism also means that there is a risk that we will lose access to talented European staff and essential medicines.

Their record on local health is no less draconian. The DUP ban on blood donations from gay men elevated homophobia over medical advice. Upon taking office I immediately brought this ban to an end.

Despite the financial constraints imposed by Westminster, I provided the consolidated pay increase of 1% to health staff, as recommended by the Pay Review Body.

In our efforts to tackle recruitment issues, I commissioned an additional 100 training places for nurses at local universities during 2016-17. I delivered a further 100 nurse training places for 2017-18.

As minister I protected the Nurse and Midwives student bursary, even as it was cut in England, and re-established the Health Partnership Forum to empower trade union leaders and Health Trust CEOs to shape the future of local health and social care.

Sinn Fein believes world-class, universal health care should be at the heart of any modern and civilised society. This is a key component in our vision of a new and agreed Ireland.

Sinn Fein is firmly committed to health and social care services now and in the future.

  • Michelle O'Neill MLA is deputy leader of Sinn Fein

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