Health Minister Robin Swann image
Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann has outlined ambitions for the rebuilding of Northern Ireland’s health and social care services, while stressing the need for sustained investment to deliver these plans.

The minister says that the coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted waiting times for health and social care appointments in Northern Ireland and highlighted some serious long-established fragilities in the health and social care system, particularly regarding staffing capacity.

For instance, the Department of Health’s most recent statistics on inpatient waiting times in Northern Ireland for the quarter ending December 2020 unveiled that 81.7 percent of patients were waiting longer than 13 weeks for inpatient or day-case treatment. This figure greatly exceeds the department’s target requiring that less than 45 percent of patients should be waiting over 13 weeks for inpatient or day case admission.

Of patients waiting for inpatient admission, almost nine-tenths were waiting over 13 weeks, the statistics show.

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Moreover, 56,242 patients were waiting longer than 52 weeks for inpatient or day-case treatment. This fails to meet the department’s target of having no patients waiting longer than 52 weeks for this type of treatment.

Discussing the urgent need to address waiting list times in Northern Ireland, in a keynote statement to the assembly, Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I am absolutely determined to put this right. But as I will argue today, I cannot do this alone. I need the support of this House and my Executive colleagues if we are to address our absolutely dire waiting lists.”

He informed Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) that detailed plans are being finalised on both waiting times and cancer care. These will shortly be issued for public consultation, as will a review of urgent and emergency care.

The Department of Health has also published the latest Trust rebuilding plans for health and social care, covering the period April to June.

Robin further told the assembly: “Our health service prides itself on being available to all, free at the point of access. I will today contend that we are in grave danger of undermining this essential feature of our health service. With ever growing waiting lists – I would question whether all of our citizens have adequate access to the health services they need?

“To address this burning issue, I will in the near future be publishing for consultation a cancer recovery plan, an elective care framework and the urgent and emergency care review. Our great staff want us to be ambitious about the future of health and social care.

“They want us to build back better, to learn the lessons of the pandemic in terms of capacity, resilience and investment. I share that ambition 100 per cent. I believe the people of Northern Ireland do too.”

The minister said that without significant and continued funding from the executive, these plans for rebuilding the health and social care system would struggle to be realised.

“We will be fighting the scourge of waiting lists with at least one hand tied behind our backs,” he added. “We must start putting this right. It is a long-term task and it needs long-term, recurrent funding.

“The present funding model which we operate within is not fit for purpose. What is really needed is a multi-year budget and unfortunately the Executive hasn’t received this from Westminster.”

He underlined that more staff are needed in the health service but expressed concerns over being able to pay the additional workforce’s wages, and training, with just a single year of funding.

“I cannot think of a more pressing issue facing us than waiting times,” the minister continued. “It cries out for action. It is a daily rebuke to the standing of this House and to the reputation of politics. It leaves thousands and thousands of our people in avoidable pain – our fellow citizens, our neighbours. We owe it to them to do much, much better.”

The Trust rebuilding plans include elective (planned) care being prioritised regionally. Robin told MLAs elective surgery will be prioritised in line with greatest clinical need and will not be dependent on a patient’s postcode.

In addition, the health minister has promised that an elective care framework will be published shortly. The purpose of this framework is to set out both the immediate and longer-term actions and funding requirements needed to tackle waiting lists.

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