Health leaders warn of 'catastrophic' cuts impacts

Nurse and patient holding hands
There's "very real potential for avoidable and serious harm" being caused, the health trust chairs said [Getty images]

Cutbacks in Northern Ireland's health service could have "catastrophic impacts", the chairs of the health and social care trusts have warned.

In a joint statement, the heads of NI's six trusts said they are "deeply concerned at the financial outlook for the frontline services" their organisations deliver.

"It is our duty to warn of the very real potential for avoidable and serious harm being caused to people in our community who require our help, as a result of inadequate budgetary provision," they said.

The warning comes after the Department of Health (DoH) launched a consultation on its budget savings plans in May.

Its Permanent Secretary, Peter May, said the health service is currently facing unfunded spending pressures of £472m, of which £375m relates to a pay claim matching NHS England.

'Public will bear the brunt'

The chairs of NI's five regional health trusts and the NI Ambulance Service trust said "intensive efforts are ongoing to deliver a significant level of savings this year" and that "even with these savings," a "very significant shortfall remains that could only be filled by measures with high and catastrophic impacts".

"The reality is that without significant additional funding this year and longer-term financial security, the health service will be further destabilised and the public will bear the brunt," their statement added.

"Such cutbacks would inevitably include bed closures as well as reductions in outpatient care, operating lists, domiciliary care and nursing care packages.

"This would impact damagingly on the whole community in Northern Ireland, particularly the most vulnerable."

The Chair of the Western Trust Dr Tom Frawley
Western Trust chairman Dr Tom Frawley has said it is "the most vulnerable who will suffer" [BBC]

In February the devolved government in Northern Ireland was restored after a 24-month hiatus, during which there were no departmental ministers in place.

Chairman of the Western Trust Dr Tom Frawley told BBC News NI the absence of politicians had created difficulties regarding the transformation of Northern Ireland's health service.

"The health service knows what the blueprint is, knows what it needs to do and has been developing the analysis to inform that," he said. "But we’ve had no politicians, who are required to make these judgements and finalise those judgments."

Referring to strains on GP and pharmacy services as well as on hospitals, Dr Frawley said the "whole system is under intense pressure and it is therefore not in a position to cope with a significant financial cut".

He said "crucial" services will be impacted because of "the level of cut that’s now being required" of health trusts to make.

Hospital beds
Cutbacks could include bed closures, the health trust leaders say [Getty images]

"What worries me is that it is the most vulnerable who will suffer in these circumstances and those are the people we should be most concerned about," he added.

"When you take a large sum of money out of the system then you reduce its capacity to respond to those pressures even further, with the implication that circumstances will become worse."

GPs issue similar warning

The health trusts' warning comes after the chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland said pressure on the health service means patients are either paying with "their livelihoods or... their lives".

Dr Ursula Mason said doctors cannot "keep doing more and more with less and less".

On Tuesday the Northern Ireland Assembly passed its first budget in three years, despite several parties voting against the move.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the assembly's official opposition, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), refused to support it.

The previous UUP Health Minister, Robin Swann opposed it when it was agreed by other executive ministers in April.

The DoH got the largest share of day-to-day funding (£7.8bn).

Mr Swann said that in voting against the budget, he acknowledged he would not be complying with the ministerial code.

"I don't do that easily, but I have a greater responsibility to defend and protect vital services,” he said.

"That is why I and so many patients and health service workers took reassurance from the public statements, both before and after the restoration of the executive, that the health of our people was going to be prioritised.

"I believe this budget does not achieve that."

'Collective responsibility'

In their statement the heads of NI's health trust said they "are mindful of the growing budgetary pressures on all parts of the public sector", but that their focus is on everyone in Northern Ireland who needs health and social care services.

"We have a collective responsibility as leaders to highlight these concerns, on behalf of our dedicated workforce and all those who rely on the vital services our organisations provide," they added.