Belfast City Council has rejected a proposal asking health officials to take over private hospitals as part of the Covid-19 response.
The motion, put forward by People Before Profit, called for the health service to take possession of the likes of the Ulster Independent Clinic, North West Independent Clinic and Kingsbridge Private Hospital for the duration of the pandemic.
The proposal called for the Executive “to immediately bring the personnel and resources of the private healthcare facilities into public control and under the direction of the health service”.
The proposer, People Before Profit councillor Fiona Ferguson, described the plan as “an emergency response to ease the burden” on the “overwhelmed health service and health workers”.
She said the measure would help to ensure that the health service has the available beds, capacity and staff to care for all Covid-19 patients and also ensure that all red flag surgeries and other vital operations could go ahead.
However, the DUP put forward an amendment which instead called for Stormont “to continue to work with all available health care resources, including all publicly funded health professionals and the private health sector”.
The amendment, in which any suggestion that Stormont should take over control of private facilities was removed, was passed by a majority vote.
The issue was discussed as hospitals across Northern Ireland continue to struggle with the demands of the latest Covid-19 surge, with more than 900 cancer operations cancelled so far this year.
Health Minister Robin Swann has warned that a proportion of those people will come to harm as a result.
Speaking after the debate, DUP councillor Brian Kingston said: “We felt that the original wording was about compelling and saying that the private health sector should be taken over.
“We want the Executive to work with all sectors during the pandemic, which is already happening, and we didn’t believe that the original proposal was realistic.
“There are many examples of the private healthcare sector supporting the NHS and making resources available.
“We’re in the middle of a health emergency and this is about everyone co-operating and working together.”
UUP councillor Jim Rodgers also voted against the original proposal and said he was “highly critical” of the plan as it gave no consideration to the potential cost of such a move.
“I think most people would agree that the health service is doing an outstanding job under the circumstances,” he added.
Ms Ferguson said she was disappointed that her proposal had not garnered the necessary support.
“This motion was aimed at alleviating the pressures within the health service and the stresses that are being endured by those on the frontline,” she said.
“The staff are overworked and traumatised and we wanted to do something that would mean that intensive care beds would be available to anyone who needs one.
“We don’t really believe this a novel idea, it happened in Spain last March and April.
“Unions such as Nipsa and the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation have also started to push for this to happen.
“We’re not convinced that this is the last wave and we need to do everything we can to help the staff.
“I don’t believe it is the silver bullet but it is common sense and I think saying that the health service is coping, I don’t think I have heard anything more out of touch in my life.”
Commenting on the Belfast City Council debate, a spokeswoman from the Department of Health said trusts have been working with the private sector to treat patients.
She said this has been “vital” in ensuring as much surgery as possible has been able to continue while the system copes with the high number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients.
“From April to December 2020, approximately 3,900 patients have been treated by health and social care consultants in the three local independent sector providers,” she added.