Former DUP health minister Edwin Poots has admitted a form of temporary direct rule for the Northern Ireland health service would be preferable to no minister at all.
Mr Poots, who was health minister from 2011 to 2014, was speaking after the former UUP leader Lord Empey introduced a Private Member’s Bill to transfer authority for the local health service to Westminster until a new Executive can be formed.
The Lagan Valley MLA stressed his preference for a locally elected minister rather than a direct rule minister but admitted that “any minister is better than no minister”.
His comments come after the publication of damning new statistics on emergency care in Northern Ireland.
The latest quarterly waiting time statistics show a huge rise in the numbers of people forced to wait more than 12 hours at Accident and Emergency (A&E) rooms across Northern Ireland.
During July, August and September this year, 8,294 patients spent 12 hours at A&E compared to 5,086 during the same time last year and 1,662 the year before.
UUP MLA Roy Beggs said the figures show why Lord Empey was right to introduce his bill for authority to be transferred to London.
“Doctors in England have been warning for some time that patients there are ‘dying prematurely’ amid ‘intolerable’ hospital delays,” he said. “Yet the reality is the waiting times there are significantly better there than they are here in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “It’s time Westminster took responsibility for the benefit and safety of local patients.”
Mr Poots said: “There’s two things that health needs – that is reform and resource. One without the other will not cut it.
“For that to happen it needs a minister to drive it. Whilst transferring the powers to Westminster gets you a minister, I would question whether it gets you a minister who will actually drive it.
“You need a minister who really wants to drive the agenda and make a difference. I’m not sure whether, historically, direct rule ministers have had that particular drive.”
Asked whether, given the current political deadlock, a direct rule minister might be preferable to the current situation, Mr Poots said: “Without doubt. Any minister is better than no minister.”
He added: “It’s absolutely outrageous that the human right to healthcare for the people in Northern Ireland is the way it is at the minute and that there is no Assembly to address that.”
Dr Ian Crawford, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Northern Ireland, said the latest emergency care figures show that patients and staff “continue to experience unprecedented risks to quality of care and patient safety throughout the summer months”. He added: “As we approach the winter months from our lowest ever baseline, we must expect these risks to increase further.”