Northern Ireland health trusts outline 'catastrophic' impact of financial pressures

The heads of Northern Ireland's health trusts have joined forces to warn of the "catastrophic impacts" which financial pressures are likely to have on health and social care services.

In an unprecedented public intervention, they said there could be bed closures, cuts to operating lists and reduced domiciliary care if additional funding is not found.

Without further funding this year, the chairs flagged the potential for a range of sweeping cutbacks, including bed closures and reductions in outpatient care provision, operating lists, and domiciliary care and nursing care packages.

New Health Minister, Mike Nesbitt, said he has been left stunned by briefings he has received on the budget situation facing health services.

In his introductory statement as minister at Stormont on Monday, he said: “I do not want a two-tier health service where timely access to treatments is the preserve of those who can afford to go private.

“I do not want to live in a society where those who live in deprived areas have such pronounced lower life expectancy, have greater health struggles and worse outcomes.

“That, of course, is a challenge for all parts of government. I want to work with my ministerial colleagues and the resources I have to develop how we could do more to address health inequalties at a community level and will bring back more detailed plans in due course.”

Last week the Stormont Assembly backed a budget in a vote that saw then-health minister Robin Swann and his Ulster Unionist colleagues oppose the spending plan.

Mr Nesbitt has since replaced his party colleague.

He repeated to MLAs his determination that he would not implement cuts which would lead to “catastrophic impacts” on health services in the region.

Setting out the implications of trying to make savings within his department, Mr Nesbitt said this would involve making decisions that will “not be without significant controversy”.

In their joint statement, the six trust chairs said they were “deeply concerned at the financial outlook for the frontline services which our organisations deliver”.

“We have no wish to be involved in political controversy and are very mindful of the growing budgetary pressures on all parts of the public sector,” they added.

“Our focus has to be on everyone in Northern Ireland who needs the health and social care services that our organisations provide.

“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.

“HSC Trusts have, of course, an onerous responsibility to make efficient use of all public resources. Intensive efforts are ongoing to deliver a significant level of savings this year, as detailed in the financial assessment published on 28/05/2024 by the Department of Health.

“As this document makes clear, even with these savings, a projected very significant shortfall remains that could only be filled by measures with high and catastrophic impacts.

“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.

“We are keenly aware of the need to reform services and invest in new technology. We know too that health drives our economy and contributes on numerous levels to well-being in society.

“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.

“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.

“We will continue to work constructively with staff, elected representatives and other stakeholders to pursue the best outcomes for patients and service users.

“Health and social care services have endured a prolonged period of instability and pressure. The escalating budgetary situation represents another destabilising factor.”

The statement was issued by South Eastern Trust chair Jonathan Patton, Northern Trust chair Anne O’Reilly, Belfast Trust chair Ciaran Mulgrew, Southern Trust chair Eileen Mullan, Western Trust chair Tom Frawley and chair of the Ambulance Service Michele Larmour.

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