Northern Ireland’s health system ‘at breaking point’

Urgent action needed on waiting times, staff shortages and funding, says Westminster committee report

Health services in the North are at risk of deteriorating to the point of collapse, a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs committee in Westminster has found. File photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Health services in the North are at risk of deteriorating to the point of collapse, a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs committee in Westminster has found. File photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

 

Northern Ireland’s health system is at “breaking point”, a Westminster committee chair has said.

Services risk deteriorating to the point of collapse without a long-term funding strategy to support transformation, a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has found.

MPs on the committee said medics are struggling to meet the needs of an ageing population without proper financial support.

Chair Simon Hoare said: “The stark reality is that the Northern Ireland health service is falling behind the rest of the UK.

“An approach to funding that simply keeps things ticking over, and an absence of over-arching strategy in key areas, has left services at breaking point and this situation must end as soon as possible.”

Recently, the Northern Ireland Department of Health’s permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, spoke about the intense pressure the health and social care service is under.

The committee’s report found that key services specialisms like cancer, social care and mental health lacked comprehensive strategies to guide their future direction.

It said the department must do more to demonstrate its commitment to developing long-term strategies for these services.

Acute issues

The Committee found that it must also take immediate action to tackle acute issues facing the health service, including cancer waiting times, shortages in social care staffing and inadequate mental health funding.

Mr Hoare added: “Health services need the funding and long-term security necessary to allow them to transform and innovate, to truly address the short and long term pressures they will face.

“We have called for the [British] government to end the insecurity and set three-year minimum budget allocations to give vital services the space to breathe and look ahead.

“We also expect more regular updates on the progress in developing strategies in key areas, particularly cancer services and mental health.”

He said the UK government must also accept that, while decisions over the direction of Northern Ireland health services should be taken by the Stormont Executive, delay is no longer an option.

“Should Stormont not form this year, they must take action in the interim otherwise vital services will only deteriorate further.”

The committee said successive one-year budgets were impeding planning and investment in Northern Ireland’s health and social care services.

Mr Pengelly told the MPs: “I would not only welcome a budget for 2019-20; I would love a budget for the next two or three years to undertake that long-term planning. I think I could make bigger, more significant change in that context.”

Without a long-term approach, the measures needed for improving outcomes and delivering value for money cannot be taken, the committee report said.

“We recommend that, following consultation between the Department of Health, the HSC Trusts and the community and voluntary sectors to determine budget priorities, the UK Government work with the Department of Health and the Department of Finance to produce three-year minimum budget allocations.

“This should be implemented from the next budget.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “The department welcomes the publication of the report by the NI Affairs Committee and will carefully consider its recommendations.” – PA