Four months ago the man who was Northern Ireland’s most senior health service official returned from retirement to warn Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness about a looming NHS funding crisis, the News Letter can reveal.
John Compton, who was chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board until the end of March, was part of a highly unusual high-level briefing given to the two men at the top of the Executive.
The ministers were warned that — as a result of the money Stormont is losing because of Sinn Fein’s refusal to implement welfare reforms — the safety of patients in hospitals would be put at risk.
The fact that Mr Compton returned from retirement to be part of the delegation, which also included the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, underlined the seriousness of the situation.
It is understood that those present on the health side set out various choices for the Executive, including charging for some health services or freezing health workers’ pay if substantial funds were not found.
However, despite that plea from non-political healthcare officials only £20million was allocated to health in last month’s budget re-allocations — one eight of the £160 million requested by health minister Edwin Poots.
Over recent days the DUP has repeatedly accused Sinn Fein of vetoing further funding to health, something which it says both the first minister and the finance minister agreed was necessary.
The fact that a meeting took place first emerged on Friday when the DUP referred to a meeting at which the chief medical officer briefed Mr McGuinness about the impact of deductions to Northern Ireland’s block grant from Westminster as a result of Sinn Fein’s veto of welfare reform.
However, it can now be revealed that Mr Compton, who spent four decades in health and social care, was at the Stormont Castle meeting on April 7.
He was joined at the high-level briefing by the health minister, Dr McBride and senior Department of Health officials.
There was a slide presentation which warned of the grave funding position within the health department if it did not receive much more than was the case during the delayed June monitoring round.
The meeting was told that the funding shortfall was £160 million — the figure which in recent days Mr Poots has said his department would ideally be receiving.
However, it is understood that Mr Poots made clear that he could live with a much lesser allocation of funds — though not the £20 million which he was given by the Executive.
Mr Poots says that he has saved almost £500m since taking over the health department in 2011 but desperately needs money for health spending on issues such as new drugs for patients and the costs of a rapidly ageing population.
Among the items for which the health delegation requested additional funds — and which Sinn Fein ultimately refused — were more than £50 million for health workers’ pay increases.
It is understood that at the end of the meeting Mr McGuinness gave an undertaking that he would see what could be done to assist the health department’s funding problems.
However, Sinn Fein went on to insist that one of its departments — education —did not lose any money, part of the reason that there was then less money for health.
In an interview with the News Letter earlier this month Finance Minister Simon Hamilton — who had been critical of the health department’s budgeting — said that Sinn Fein’s refusal to allocate more to the health budget was one of the reasons for the long delay in the budget re-allocations.
At the time of going to press, Sinn Fein had not responded to a request for comment.
Last week the health minister warned that he would not implement some of the cuts now facing health as a result of the welfare reform stalemate.
Mr Poots said that if the Executive wanted the cuts then it would have to vote for them.
Future budget cuts looming
The budget cuts agreed last month led to departments losing just over two per cent of their budgets.
But those relatively modest cuts will soon seem insignificant in comparison to what is coming, as, month after month, millions of pounds are removed from the money which Westminster allocates to Stormont.
The permanent secretaries of the 12 Stormont departments — who as the accounting officers are legally responsible for their departments’ spending — have been told to begin drawing up plans for future cuts.
That message, from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, would, if politicians cannot agree on further budget cuts in October as a result of the welfare impasse, ultimately mean that ministers are no longer in control of their departments – something which would bring into question Stormont’s viability.