NI health services to be radically overhauled


The North's Health Minister, Ms Bairbre de Brun, has outlined her proposals for a radical overhaul of the health and social services. The plan emphasises the provision of acute services, the improvement of public health and the recruitment of nurses.

The Minister will set up an independent review group, led by Dr Maurice Hayes, to look at the provision of acute hospital services. The group is expected to report to Ms de Brun in six months after consulting a wide range of organisations and individuals. It is also expected to look at possible co-operation with hospitals throughout Ireland.

Describing the review as "long overdue", Ms de Brun said: "I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people."

Ms de Brun expressed concern at the state of public health in the North, which she said compared unfavourably with other parts of western Europe. She would, therefore, launch a public health strategy in October aimed, among other things, at addressing the connection between poverty and ill health as well as premature death, she added.

"I will be bringing forward for public consultation in the autumn a new and comprehensive public health strategy that involves all sectors - voluntary, community, public and private - in working together to improve the health of our population," she said.

"This strategy will address the unacceptable inequalities in health that are evident across our society. In particular, it will ensure that programmes are targeted at those suffering the worst health or who are most at risk."

The number of pre-registration nurse training places at Queen's University, Belfast, is to be increased by 100 over each of the next three years to ensure recruitment and retention of qualified staff. She would also shortly be launching an overall human resources strategy, the Minister added.

She pledged to tackle the yearly winter pressures which crippled many hospital services across the North last year. She will set aside £500,000 sterling for additional intensive-care beds and improvement of emergency transport. A task force is to be set up to examine children's services, particularly the areas of residential and foster care. A strategy on primary care is being developed and will be put to public consultation later this year. The chairman of the Assembly's health committee, the SDLP's Dr Joe Hendron, welcomed Ms de Brun's proposals, in particular the establishment of the independent review group into acute services, and described the proposed chairman, Dr Maurice Hayes, as "the ideal person for the task". Dr Hendron added: "The Minister is quite rightly addressing the massive problem of inequalities in health and associated poverty; hence I welcome her proposal for a new, comprehensive public health strategy."

While welcoming the Minister's proposals, another member of the health committee, Sinn Fein MLA Ms Sue Ramsey insisted sufficient money must be made available for the programmes, in particular the children's task force.

However, an Ulster Unionist member of the health committee, Mr Alan McFarland, said he was "dismayed" that hospitals in Northern Ireland were to be subjected to yet another study and a further delay before decisions would be taken on their future.