In a speech to UUP MLAs, Council Group leaders and Party Officers, Northern Ireland`s Health Minister, Robin Swann MLA, has warned that fixing the Health Service will require unprecedented collective action from the Northern Ireland Executive.
The full text of the Health Minister`s speech is below:
I want to start by personally acknowledging the support that I have received from party colleagues during my time as Health Minister.
I am now well past the halfway point in my time in this job. It has been an incredibly tough period for our health and social care service and for the people of Northern Ireland.
While we are hopeful that, with the success of our vaccination programme, we will continue to make progress against the pandemic, huge challenges certainly still remain.
There has been a lot of attention recently, and rightly so, on our appalling hospital waiting times. But we must also remember that we have serious pressures and problems in other areas too – and that includes mental health services, GP services, social care and children’s services.
Our whole system is in big trouble, and it has been heading that way for years.
The thing is we know what needs to be done in terms of rebuilding, in terms of investment and in terms of reform. Achieving that is not straightforward, especially at a time of severe budget pressures. And we know of course, reforming, reshaping and rebuilding health services is never easy.
But we know where we need to get to. We might not agree on the best way to get there. But we certainly can agree on the scale of the problems and that doing nothing is not an option.
I’ll tell you what we don’t need. We don’t need more party-political division about health. We don’t need more cheap shots or point scoring.
And I’ll actually go further, party political point scoring could be the death knell for our health service here in Northern Ireland.
It’s always tempting to try to score those points – to issue that hard hitting press release; to slam this or to slam that; and to demand that something must be done.
We’ve seen that for years and years. Calls for more spending in different services – without any suggestion as to where the extra money or the extra staff would actually come from.
It’s too easy to angrily condemn any proposed changes to any local services or to spout conspiracy theories about secret plans to close or to run down smaller hospitals. Never mind that it’s not actually true.
It has just been the done thing, the safe thing to do and say.
Because it’s all too convenient to play those games, especially when an election is coming up.
It’s the last thing we actually need right now because it’s a luxury that we simply can’t afford.
Here’s the thing. The Assembly’s overall record on health is nothing much to write home about. We could argue and we can point fingers about why that is the case, and whose fault it is, and which party was in charge of health whenever something happened. But where would that get us?
We have to be better than this.
And we do have to understand how we got to this point. We can do that without the blame game.
We know that austerity and the financial squeeze applied by London has a central role in the story, but it wasn’t all about money. Wrong decisions were made locally on issues like staffing investment. And other big decisions, difficult decisions were dodged and fudged. Review after review came and went and opportunities were repeatedly missed.
It looked like [after] the publication of the Bengoa Report that things might change. Then the Executive and our Assembly collapsed and we were left without Ministers for three long years.
It’s actually often forgotten now that a costed, elective care plan for waiting lists was actually published in February 2017, with a target to start helping those who had been waiting longest for treatment.
But unfortunately as we know, the Executive, the Assembly and Ministers were all gone within three weeks of that publication. The hoped-for budget uplift didn’t happen. Indeed, later that same year, our health service was embroiled in a crisis over savings plans.
So to date, Health in Northern Ireland has often not been a great advert actually for devolution.
But I believe that we can change that, by working together. In the next few days, I will assist that goal by publishing a new elective care framework, actually setting out how we can start to put things right.
Some of that will involve the reshaping of services, including some changes that may put us all to the test as politicians. It will involve us all getting used to having to travel a bit further for some treatments, in specialised regional facilities.
It will also have to involve the Executive collectively committing more recurrent money to get more people off waiting lists as quickly as possible because this crisis needs both short term and longer-term actions.
Of course, no one is saying it’s just about the money – that’s just part of the problem.
As ever in any big organisation, there is an ongoing need to improve performance and to improve efficiency. And as Minister, I’ll be and I have been relentless in holding the system to account, in making clear that complacency, defeatism and being second best are not acceptable.
But let’s not pretend that there is some quick trick or lever to pull that makes it all okay, or that finds large scale savings for reinvestment. Different Ministers from different parties have held this job. They will all tell you that money is always tight. So let’s nail the myth that there are massive savings hidden away waiting in the system to be unlocked.
This is going to be tough.
But starting to fix our health service is going to require an unprecedented display of Executive unity and collective action.
I believe we can do it because we actually must do it.
Notes to Editors:
Link to video and audio of Speech by UUP Health Minister, Robin Swann MLA: