NI doctors’ dismay as politicians ‘walk out the door’ on healthcare

Dr Alan Stout
Dr Alan Stout

Politicians have “walked out the door” at a time when healthcare services desperately need leadership, a GPs’ representative has said.

With no Stormont Executive or budget in place, important reforms of health and social care, and decisions on the strategic allocations of funds, have been put on hold.

Unionists have accused Sinn Fein of creating a crisis in health by collapsing the assembly.

Earlier this week DUP MLA Edwin Poots accused Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill of putting her party before the needs of cancer patients – as the latest figures show targets for cancer treatment waiting times again been missed.

Mr Poots, himself a former health minister, said: “When Sinn Fein were taking the decision at the end of last year to crash devolution and force an election, Michelle O’Neill will have been well aware these issues were sitting on her desk as she walked away from it.”

The ongoing political wrangling over the future of the assembly means a senior official from the Department of Finance will use emergency powers to keep cash flowing for everyday running costs.

Dr Alan Stout, deputy chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland GPs committee, said healthcare providers are in “a really difficult position”.

Dr Stout said: “General practice is in dire trouble at the minute in terms of workload and workforce, but everywhere you in look in health – be it outpatients and waiting lists, be it admissions and delayed discharges and the social problems as well – we have a really difficult position.

“Health is something that affects everybody, at different times of their life and for different reasons, so you would have thought that would be very high up their priority list.”

A plan for the future of GP services, the elective care plan, and population health models are the three main healthcare reform policies on hold while the political stalemate continues.

Dr Stout the current impasse is particularly disappointing as both Michelle O’Neill and her DUP predecessor Simon Hamilton were excellent health ministers.

“Both were exceptionally impressive and both got a very firm grasp on what the problems and the priorities were.”

Dr Stout added: “I think the department is very focused on the need for change, and the work around that, so that is a positive sign, but you can’t take the big decisions that need to be made without the politicians there.

“One of the biggest difficulties in all of this is that the tone is always set from the top, so when you’ve got a system that’s under pressure, and a workforce under pressure, you need strong and inspired leadership. The problem is that what we are seeing is the leadership kind of walking out the door and leaving us all behind.”

Sinn Fein health spokesperson Pat Sheehan said Ms O’Neill has repeatedly stated the current waiting times “are not acceptable”.

Mr Sheehan added: “It is only through transforming health and social care system that we can address excessive waiting times.”