Robin Swann warns budget could have devastating impact on Northern Ireland health service

A budget has been finally agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, however, Robin Swann has warned his allocation risks collapsing the health service.

The health minister voted against the budget for the current financial year which was agreed following a lengthy Executive meeting on Thursday.

Mr Swann denied that he was adopting a “populist stance” by refusing to back the budget agreed.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill conceded it was a “very challenging” budget but stated she was disappointed Mr Swann could not support it.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said the sum asked for by the health minister would have consumed the entire funding available to the Executive.

In a letter sent to health committee members, Mr Swann said the financial agreement would lead to an “unprecedented cash terms budget reduction” in health.

He continued: “I believe it would result in serious and potentially irreparable damage to health and care services.

“Patients who rely on these services would be placed at significantly greater risk of coming to actual harm and the already intolerable pressures on staff would be multiplied.”

His letter added: “I could not stand over the implementation of cuts of this scale.

“I have a real fear that a service that is currently struggling in many areas could be pushed to the point of collapse in at least some areas.”

He concluded: “This budget, if passed by the Assembly, will drive unplanned and potentially chaotic change from which we will struggle to recover.”

Speaking at Stormont, Mr Swann said: “The Department of Health was left in a position where we were actually receiving a 2.3% cut on what we spent last year.

“Not only is this a budget which doesn’t prioritise health, this is a budget which actually removes money from the health service in Northern Ireland.”

He added: “I made it clear that I came into this position to fight for the health and welfare of the people of Northern Ireland.

“That is what I did today with this Executive, this is what I did with this budget.

“We are now looking at cuts across domiciliary care, across elective care, across frameworks, waiting lists initiatives that we were promised, that this Executive gave nothing to in this budget.”

Mr Swann said: “If somebody thinks this is a populist stance or a populist position to take, this is a position that actually sees the welfare of the health service of Northern Ireland defunded by 2.3%.”

Speaking at a press conference after the budget was announced, Ms Little-Pengelly said: “The reality is that if the health minister had received what he asked for, it would have consumed the entirety of what additional was available for the budget.

“There are other issues of key importance, special educational needs including broader education, justice. There are competing priorities.”

Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald said the Stormont Executive would continue to press the Westminster Government for more funding for Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill said the Executive had to show leadership by agreeing a budget.

She said: “Despite the severity of the financial challenges that are facing us we have all collectively tried to work together to make the tough choices and to demonstrate the leadership that the public rightly deserve.

“The budget itself underlines our commitment to health, in terms of prioritising health. It also invests significantly in our education services and provides funding for the childcare strategy.

“There is no doubt – and there is no escaping the fact – this was a very difficult call, a very difficult budget for us to discuss.”

The SDLP’s Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole said the budget statement agreed by the powersharing Executive lacked any sense of priority.

He said: “We have now got a budget statement. We don’t have a fully-blown budget document but we do have an indication of what the allocations are going to be.

“What people expected and were led to believe would happen in today’s budget statement for a new Executive was a clear sense of prioritisation.

“Not just allocation of money, but a clear sense of direction from the Executive in terms of what they wanted to prioritise, how they are going to fix collapsing public services, how they are going to deliver meaningful reform in childcare, how they are going to tackle poverty.

“We haven’t got that, at least we haven’t got it yet.”

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