Edwin Poots’ health department needs more money or lives will be lost, ex-health minister Michael McGimpsey last night said.
In a significant intervention, the Ulster Unionist MLA spoke out in defence of his DUP successor’s plea for more funding.
Mr Poots has said that the money Stormont is now losing as a result of Sinn Fein’s veto of welfare reform is harming frontline health services.
Mr McGimpsey’s intervention will surprise some MLAs, given the bitterly-contested battles which he waged with the DUP as minister and the fact that even in recent days the DUP has been unflatteringly pointing to his time in charge of health.
Because of that, some will see his comments as evidence of the gravity of the situation facing the health service.
Speaking to the BBC last night, the South Belfast MLA said: “I think it’s very important that the Executive get behind the health minister, and get behind the health service, and find the money that’s required to keep the show on the road.
“If they don’t, lives will be lost, patients will be put at risk; patients are coming to harm.”
Mr McGimpsey said that his successor should have spoken out earlier about the problems facing his department’s budget but said that he had probably felt constrained by his DUP colleagues.
Last week Mr Poots made clear that he would not implement the cuts required because of the welfare reform impasse. He said that the Executive would have to vote for the specific cuts if that was what they wanted.
Writing to the Stormont Health Committee last night, Mr Poots set out details of the cuts which will be necessary if he is not given more money or if Sinn Fein does not lift its veto of welfare reform, which has led to Stormont losing millions of pounds a month from its budget.
Mr Poots said that as things stand there would need to be pay freezes for health staff as well as cuts to health services which would directly impact NHS patients in Northern Ireland. He said it would lead to increasing numbers of patients “being put at risk”.
Mr Poots said: “Many of the implications are controversial and given their magnitude and cross-cutting nature, some of which would represent a reversal of previous Executive strategies and commitments...it would not be appropriate for such decisions to be taken by a single minister.”
He added: “The consequences and implications are wholly unacceptable and indeed indefensible – particularly as many of them will affect the most vulnerable in our society.”
He said that the ability of the health service to respond to a crisis such as a flu outbreak would be “severely compromised” and that the chief medical officer had expressed “profound concerns”.
Mr Poots said that £80 million “could avoid the most devastating impacts of these proposals on the public”.
Sinn Fein acknowledged there were “growing challenges” in health but said that Mr Poots was “a minister who has failed to convince his own party colleagues on the Executive of his ability to manage his budget”.
Last night UKIP MLA David McNarry welcomed Mr McGimpsey’s comments. He said: “I am delighted to hear Michael McGimpsey breaking his silence and putting shameful opportunistic party politics in their place.”
He added: “McGimpsey has laid it on the line and scolded those who play loose with lives and well-being.”