Healthcare leaders warn action needed to prevent 'total collapse' of Northern Ireland health service

Organisations representing thousands of doctors and nurses have told UTV the healthcare system in Northern Ireland could not be in a more perilous condition.

In an unprecedented show of unity, they have warned there is need for action in order to prevent its total collapse. They also vented their frustration at the lack of power sharing.

"The cost of failure is too severe to contemplate," they said.

The warning comes in a joint statement from seven royal colleges, which represent thousands of doctors and nurses.

It voices concern over "intolerably long" waiting lists and "overwhelmed" emergency departments, and says general practice is "at risk of total destabilisation".

The statement describes "chronic workforce shortages" and tells of "overworked" and burnt out staff who "cannot cope any longer".

The Department of Health said the past three years had been the most challenging the NHS had faced in its history. It said addressing the challenges in a long term sustainable way "will require sustained investment and reform – including ongoing significant investment in workforce".

It warned "significant savings" were required.

The statement from the Royal Colleges said "the situation could not be more serious".

“As health service leaders, we are determined to continue to work together in the best interests of our staff and the patients we serve, but we are extremely concerned at the state of our health service," it said.

"We need action to prevent total collapse. The cost of failure is too severe to contemplate."

The statement comes from the Royal College of GPs, Royal College of Surgeons of England, Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

They said they were "speaking with a united voice to highlight just how serious things".

“We know that we are looking toward an incredibly difficult financial context with a huge budget deficit likely to have a real impact on basic service delivery, let alone being able to deliver on the transformation that is so badly needed.

“It is extremely frustrating that we have no functioning Government or Assembly at Stormont and it is regrettable that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland declined our urgent invitation to meet.

"There is no political avenue to express our serious concerns."

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris stressed a local Executive was best placed to work on the crisis in health.

He said: "I would absolutely want to thank the staff and everybody who works in the National Health Service across the United Kingdom for everything they do on a daily basis, everything they did through Covid, everything they do now.

"The problems in Northern Ireland have been long in the making and actually will not be solved overnight, even if an Executive came back, but some of them are truly local and are best decided by local people and that’s why we need an Executive.”

A statement from the Health Department said it "remains deeply concerned about the ongoing pressures on staff and services".

It continued: "All parts of our health and social care system are under great pressure and we are only too aware that there are unacceptable delays in many service areas.

"Addressing those problems in long term sustainable way will require sustained investment and reform – including ongoing significant investment in workforce.

"The 2023/24 budget is expected to be extremely challenging for the entire NI public sector, including health and social care. 

"It is clear under any scenario that very significant savings will be required and the need for cuts that reduce service levels cannot be ruled out.  

"Against that background, the Department will prioritise those areas that are most fundamental to short and long term stability including investing in medical and nursing training places.

"Our ability to deliver improvements and prevent worsening standards will be dependent on budgetary settlements as well as on the efforts made across the system to maximise what we can deliver with the resources available."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.