DUP leader Arlene Foster has called for an immediate return to Stormont to deal with the deepening crisis in the Northern Ireland health service.
Mrs Foster’s call comes as health chiefs and trade unionists continue to blame each other for the problems associated with the ongoing dispute over staffing levels and pay.
Thousands of hospital appointments have already been cancelled by health trusts amid industrial action by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison.
But the crisis is likely to intensify in the weeks leading up to Christmas with the trade unions Unite, Nipsa, Unison and the RCN all set to take part in strikes on what has been dubbed “a major day of action” set for December 18.
There had been suggestions earlier this week that the Secretary of State Julian Smith could intervene but the Conservative MP has appeared to rule that out.
He told the BBC he is “extremely sorry” the industrial action is impacting patients and families but stressed that since health is a devolved matter decisions “have to be taken by the Northern Ireland Civil Service”.
Mrs Foster said that the restoration of the Executive is now the only “immediate” solution to the crisis.
“We simply cannot wait for other important, but less pressing issues, to be resolved before we act,” she said.
“The crisis in our health service demands the urgent return of the Assembly and ministers in place to take decisions.
“We have now reached a point where there are warnings about patient safety. Faced with that kind of stark warning we cannot allow further drift.
“No issue supersedes healthcare both in terms of its importance and the scale of the impact it has on every single person in our society.
“I am repeating the call to re-establish the Executive immediately so that decisions can be taken on our health service. Agreement can be found on the other outstanding issues within a fixed timeframe. This proposal is the only way to see the kind of immediate action the public demands.”
Sinn Fein, however, appeared to pour cold water on the proposal almost immediately.
Asked to respond to the DUP leader’s comments, Sinn Fein health spokesperson Pat Sheehan said: “Sinn Fein stand ready and committed to restoring the Assembly.
“But any restoration must ensure the Assembly is sustainable, credible and has the confidence of the public.
“The key to any agreement is resolving the outstanding issues which lie at the heart of the talks.”
Mr Sheehan added: “Sinn Fein stands ready to re-enter talks in the coming weeks and will work with all parties and both governments to reach a fair agreement.”
Meanwhile, health officials and trade unionists remain at odds over who is to blame for the impact of the industrial action.
The chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, warned that there is a “real risk” of unintended consequences.
But the largest health union in Northern Ireland, Unison, hit back and accused Dr McBride of using striking health workers as scapegoats for the wider problems in the service.
Dr McBride, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, said the scale and scope of industrial action at a time of significant pressure on the service meant that “the risk of unintended consequences is real”.
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown responded: “We are not prepared to have our members scapegoated by the chief medical officer or anyone else who has presided over the growing crisis for patients.
“We call on the chief medical officer, the chief nursing officer and all the others in leadership in the Department of Health to stand with health workers – not against them.”
Unison also called on Mr Smith to intervene.
Ms McKeown said: “Health may be a devolved matter but funding it is not.”
Mr Smith, speaking to the BBC ahead of a meeting with senior civil servants, said: “I will do whatever I can within the powers that I have to help the Northern Ireland Civil Service move this forward, and that’s including speaking with the trade unions.”