Health chiefs lay bare system struggles to Stormont Health Committee

The Chief Executives of Northern Ireland's five health trusts and the NI Ambulance Service, have laid bare the extent of the issues they face to Stormont's Health Committee.

They painted a picture of a system that has too little money, too few staff, and is trying to see more and more patients who are presenting with more complicated illnesses.

Roisin Coulter, chief executive South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, opened by calling for "a radical overhaul".

“There are no quick fixes. What is needed will take years," she said.

“Most of my chief executive colleagues and myself have spent over 30 years working in health and social care in Northern Ireland and, genuinely, we have never experienced anything like this."

Neil Guckian, Chief Executive of the Western Health and Social Care Trust told the committee that each trust is facing a £50million shortfall heading into the new financial year. He said that for one organisation to make that saving in one year, they'd have to reduce staffing by 1,500, with the gap filled by agency staff.

Michael Bloomfield of the NIAS Trust said the Ambulance Service lost 108,000 hours waiting to hand patients over at hospital in 2023.

He said: “Regrettably many patients are waiting too long for an ambulance response in the community.

“While we always prioritise the most urgent calls, response times, even for the most clinically urgent calls, are increasing.

“Of particular concern is the increase in response times for category two calls, which should receive an 18-minute response.

“We had a mean of 34 minutes in quarter one of this (financial year), that has increased to 57 minutes by quarter three.

“The main reason for this increase is the impact of wider pressures across the unscheduled care system.”

Speaking of waiting lists, Bernie Owens of Belfast Trust told the committee that across NI there are 116,000 people waiting for an inpatient or day procedure, 190,000 people waiting for a diagnostic test, and 430,000 waiting for a first consultant led outpatient appointment.

As for issues filling some posts, Maria O'Kane (Southern Trust) said some areas have 50 per cent vacancies in consultant psychology and psychiatry posts, while some areas short of 50 per cent of social work staff.

Jennifer Welsh, chief executive of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, briefed MLAs on population challenges.

She said 17.2% of the population is now over the age of 65.

She added that healthcare is related to a number of social determinants, saying almost half of preventable deaths in Northern Ireland are attributable to deprivation.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has said that a 24 Junior Doctor walkout planned from the 6th of March will still go ahead, despite the Health Minister penning a letter urging them to reconsider.

Minister Swann had said he intends to increase junior doctor pay in line with the independent review body on Doctors' and Dentists' pay. This would mean as much as 10.7 per cent for F1 medics.

Dr Fiona Griffin, BMA NI junior doctors committee chair said they have responded to the Minister’s letter.

"The current ‘offer’ is the DDRB’s most recent recommendation," she said.

"We have been consistently clear we are seeking an above inflation pay rise for all junior doctors and a commitment to working with us towards full pay restoration.

"As it stands, what has been offered is not enough to avert strike action and our plans for this continue. We remain willing to work with the minister to agree an offer we believe is worth putting to our members.”

The letter from Minister Swann had said that while he understands and sympathises "with the frustration of junior doctors", he would "question the merit of the industrial action planned."

"While I fully understand the anger of junior doctors who have seen pay not keep pace with inflation in recent years, it is not realistic to expect this issue to be resolved by the Executive and Assembly at this point in time," he said.

"Pay erosion has been a consequence of UK Government fiscal policies over the past decade and has been experienced across the UK public sector. This is a national issue.

"I am committed to doing all I can to match awards given in England – but parity plus for pay awards is not deliverable."

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