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Lisa Smyth

Radical revamp of the health service gives medics a chance to win coronavirus battle

Lisa Smyth


The coronavirus outbreak is set to radically change Northern Ireland's health service.

The coronavirus outbreak is set to radically change Northern Ireland's health service.

The coronavirus outbreak is set to radically change Northern Ireland's health service.

Sweeping changes are to be made to the health service in the coming days and weeks as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic steps up.

It was just three weeks ago that I interviewed the medical director of the Northern Trust about the impending challenges facing the health service in the face of this new virus.

At the time, he warned that doctors in Northern Ireland could be faced with rationing intensive care beds.

As unbelievable as it was that a senior health official was making such an admission, it now appears that the warning was the tip of the iceberg.

According to Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary for the Department of Health, Northern Ireland’s “existing hospital estate may not have sufficient capacity to provide critical care to the number of patients who will require it” at the peak of the outbreak.

As a result, the entire structure of the health service is to be overhauled, with emergency departments, day case and outpatient units, and minor injury units all earmarked for closure.

Large regional respiratory hospitals are to be set up and resources will be shared across Northern Ireland.

Under ordinary circumstances, such changes to the health and social care system would only come after months of consultation.

We do not have that luxury when it comes to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic that is threatening the future of the health service and the lives of up to 15,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The peak of the outbreak, as referred to by Mr Pengelly, is almost upon us, so changes to the health service must be done urgently - there is no time for consultation with the public.

Of course, there are concerns that some of the measures being put in place may become permanent.

The future of the emergency departments at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick were already uncertain before all of this happened.

Health Minister Robin Swann provided no reassurance this morning when he refused to give Stormont health committee members a guarantee that all services will resume after the Covid-19 pandemic comes to an end.

Just as no-one could have predicted the devastation that would be wreaked across the globe by coronavirus in a matter of months, it is impossible to predict its impact on the health service in years to come.

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