Stormont collapse ‘should not affect health system reform project’

Professor Rafael Bengoa
Professor Rafael Bengoa

The international expert who authored a report to transform Northern Ireland’s health care system has said he is not concerned about the lack of devolved government to drive it.

Almost two years ago, Professor Rafael Bengoa made a number of radical recommendations to make the health and social care system fit for the 21st century.

During a visit to Belfast on Tuesday, Professor Bengoa said change has already started, and that a health minister in post would only help if they were a good minister.

There was cross-community support for the resulting report, Delivering Together, which was launched by the then Stormont Health Minister Michelle O’Neill, First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in October 2016.

But just a few months later, the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed.

Professor Bengoa insisted he is not disappointed by the current political situation.

“Things are moving forward, and some projects are taking shape,” he said.

“There is no study anywhere that says had we had a government, things would have been done one way or another.

“Things have moved on even without government.”

When asked whether having a health minister in post would be better, Professor Bengoa said that would “probably help”, but only if it was a good minister.

“If that minister has the right vision and is moving in the right direction,” he said.

“Delivering Together had that.

“But there are only five or six countries in Europe where you have a minister that knows where they are going. So if you have ministers who don’t know where they are going, where they are just saying: ‘I am going to survive for four/five years’, then they are not going to be on a transformative agenda.

“What’s really good here (in Northern Ireland) is that you are on a transformative agenda even without a government.”

The 10-year plan for improvement included tackling waiting lists and boosting GP practices.

Millions of pounds have since been allocated for addressing waiting lists.

An £8.8 million investment in GP services was announced on Monday.

Professor Bengoa said it is vital that health stakeholders work together to succeed in transforming the system.

“So, you have around the table the pharmacists, the nurses and doctors, and the local politicians deciding that for this local community of 100,000, what is it that we need to do with our kids becoming more obese, more mental health issues?” he said.

“That conversation is going to be had if we move forward with this model. If you don’t move forward with this model, you don’t have that conversation, you don’t extract all the know-how of the different disciplines.

“For the moment, they still don’t have a common vision. They are going to have as we move forward.

“What is the pattern of disease in this population and can we do something about it together? Versus: Let’s continue defending wee pharmacies, wee doctors, wee nurses etc.

“You have to get the needs of the population on the table.”

Professor Bengoa is in Belfast to deliver a lecture at Queen’s University marking the 70th anniversary of the health service and themed around reshaping care for the next 70 years.