NHS chief: We will close hospitals, but that will be safer

Smaller hospitals across Northern Ireland will close over coming years, with the remaining hospitals becoming larger and more specialised, the most senior NHS manager in Northern Ireland has said.

In an interview with the News Letter, Valerie Watts made clear that she was “totally committed to Transforming Your Care (TYC)”, the policy drawn up by her predecessor John Compton which makes clear that there will be less care in hospitals and more in people’s homes.

Valerie Watts, Chief Executive of the Health and Social Care Board pictured at her offices in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison

Valerie Watts, Chief Executive of the Health and Social Care Board pictured at her offices in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison

However, Ms Watts, who is chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, did not initially spell out that that policy would in practice mean the closure of some long-established hospital facilities.

She said: “Coming back into Northern Ireland, having worked in Scotland for the last 25 years, my perception would be that at times the local population have been led into this sense of believing that a hospital in almost every town — to paraphrase a lot of what’s been said by the media — is the safest thing to have, when in actual fact it is not the safest way to deliver health , and indeed social care services.”

When asked what is delaying the implementation of the TYC changes, Ms Watts plays down suggestions that there is a lack of money for initial investments which could ultimately lead to savings.

She said that in any big institutional change there are people who “get that transformation and reform is the right things to do and there will be others who will perhaps feel threatened by that and be kicking against transformation and reform right from the outset”.

When asked to explain Transforming Your Care in layman’s terms and whether it would lead to closing smaller hospitals to create larger more specialised centres, Ms Watts said: “Fundamentally, in one sentence, it will mean that the patient will get the right care in the right place within the right time frame with the right outcome.”

Asked if that is not happening at present, Ms Watts said: “Well, no it’s not because we know — let’s not beat about the bush here — we know that waiting times are not what they should be; we know that people are having to wait for quite a while for elective procedures, for diagnostics, for even a GP appointment.

“We want people to get access to those services in a timely fashion, particularly for those who are presenting with more serious illnesses...”

Eventually, when asked again if people could expect to see smaller hospitals closing, with fewer but bigger hospitals remaining, Ms Watts said: “That is my vision, yes, because that is the safest thing for Northern Ireland to have.”

She added: “Does acute reform need to happen? Yes, absolutely and fundamentally it does. And the sooner the better.”

Ms Watts said that she gets “hot under the collar” about the perception that the NHS is constantly in turmoil.

“If you take every single transaction that’s carried out on a daily basis in health and social care, we are performing millions and billions of transactions across a single year.

“And on the scale of things, we are getting a large, large percentage of that right. We are improving people’s lives, we are improving the quality of people’s lives, indeed at times we are even saving people’s lives. We are prolonging lives.

“I think there has to be balance applied to the reporting of everything we do across health and social care, but there is an element in there that I have inherited in my current role that I’m unhappy with and it’s about trying to improve that at every step of the way...”

Ms Watts told how her father, who worked as an electrician for the NHS and was “one of the health service’s biggest fans”, recently had to go into hospital he asked her whether he was right to go into hospital and questioned her as to whether it was “safe”.

She told him “of course it is, and you more than anybody should realise how safe it is”.

That, she said, illustrated how the ‘bad news’ about the NHS wrongly left some people with the impression that hospitals are dangerous.

Ms Watts also played down comments in an interview with the Irish News where she suggested an NHS ‘good news’ TV station to counter what she sees as negative media reporting of health issue. Ms Watts said she had no regrets about the suggestion - in an interview with the Irish News - which she said had not been serious.

I’m not hung up on A&E waiting times, says NI’s top NHS manager

Valerie Watts, an outsider to the NHS who is prone to management-speak