The new Sinn Fein health minister has made clear that her party’s ideological opposition to private healthcare will not preclude her from sub-contracting NHS work to such commercial firms.
Speaking in the Assembly on Monday on the first substantive item of business since the formation of a new Executive, Michelle O’Neill repeatedly described private health firms as “the independent sector”.
Pressed by the TUV leader, Jim Allister, Mrs O’Neill said that she would prefer for the NHS to be able to deal with the current waiting list crisis, but said that her decision to continue using private firms to reduce the backlog was in the interests of patients.
Speaking in the chamber, Mr Allister said: “Interestingly, the statement makes no mention of the use of the private sector in the health service.
“Is that because its use has been abandoned under the minister or is it because the minister has abandoned her ideological opposition to the use of the private sector?”
Mrs O’Neill replied that she would “never abandon my principles” and went on: “I can tell you that I want to see a position where we do not need to use the independent sector.
“I want to be in a position where we create a health service that is on a sustainable footing that can deliver first-class services, and I think that the only way that we can do that is if we transform the whole healthcare system and how we deliver it.
“That is why I have set out the vision about how I want to move forward, and, as I said earlier, we are going to continually come back to this conversation around capacity issues in the health service, waiting lists and all of those things if we do not seriously transform the healthcare sector.”
But Mrs O’Neill added: “For me, the use of the independent sector is a short-term measure to allow people to be treated and to receive the care that they need.
“Whenever independent sector provision is used in the health service...for me, the overriding concern is ensuring that patients receive their treatment in a timely manner. That, for me, is the key.
“Obviously, I want to get to the point where we have the capacity in the health service to deliver.”
Speaking more broadly, Mrs O’Neill said that she is “determined to maintain the momentum that was started by my predecessor Simon Hamilton”.
But, when a series of MLAs asked for a commitment that their local hospital would be kept open, Mrs O’Neill played down suggestions that she will close hospitals, saying that “when we talk about radical change, we are talking about change in how we deliver services. It is not about hospitals or closing hospitals”.