Northern Ireland health trusts 'deeply concerned' at financial outlook for frontline services

The chairs of Northern Ireland’s health trusts have warned that projected budget cuts risk causing “avoidable and serious harm” to people in need of care. 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. The intervention from the five main hospital trusts and the NI Ambulance Service comes amid an ongoing political dispute over the level of funding allocated to the Department of Health in the 2024/25 financial year. Last week, Stormont Assembly members backed the budget in a vote that saw then Health Minister Robin Swann and his UUP colleagues oppose the spending plan. In his last day in post before stepping down to focus on his Westminster election bid, Mr Swann warned that the budget allocation for his department would inflict “irreparable” damage on Northern Ireland’s health service. Mr Swann warned fellow Executive ministers that no UUP minister would introduce the cost-saving measures he says are required to balance the department’s budget. He has since been replaced by party colleague Mike Nesbitt who has made clear he is not prepared to implement “catastrophic cuts” to services. Mr Nesbitt has expressed hope that some of the health service’s immediate funding woes could be addressed with the injection of further Treasury cash that is being made available to Stormont in the upcoming June monitoring round – part of the in-year process of reallocating returned or new money to departments. However, the new minister has also not ruled out overspending his departmental budget to avoid the imposition of major cuts. In a 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.

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