Health trusts chiefs issue budget cuts warning over risks of ‘avoidable and serious harm’

Parliament Buildings, Stormont
-Credit: (Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)

Projected budget cuts by Stormont risk causing “avoidable and serious harm” to people in Northern Ireland in need of care.

That's the stark warning today from the five main hospital trusts and the NI Ambulance Service amid an ongoing political dispute over the level of funding allocated to the Department of Health in the 2024/25 financial year.

Last week, MLAs backed the budget in a vote but former Health Minister Robin Swann and his UUP colleagues opposed the spending plan.

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The UUP had argued that the setting of the budget should be delayed to factor in further Treasury funds that will be available to Stormont in the June monitoring round – part of the in-year process of reallocating returned or new money to departments.

In his last day in the post before stepping down to run in the upcoming election, Mr Swann warned that the budget allocation for health would inflict “irreparable” damage on Northern Ireland’s health service.

In a joint statement, the six trust chairs said they were “deeply concerned at the financial outlook for the frontline services which our organisations deliver” and flagged the potential for a range of sweeping cutbacks, including bed closures and reductions in outpatient care provision, operating lists, and domiciliary care and nursing care packages.

The statement was issued by South Eastern Trust chair Jonathan Patton, Northern Trust chair Anne O’Reilly, Belfast Trust chair Ciaran Mulgrew, Southern Trust chair Eileen Mullan, Western Trust chair Tom Frawley and chair of the Ambulance Service Michele Larmour.

They said “We have no wish to be involved in political controversy and are very mindful of the growing budgetary pressures on all parts of the public sector. Our focus has to be on everyone in Northern Ireland who needs the health and social care services that our organisations provide.

“It is our duty to warn of the very real potential for avoidable and serious harm being caused to people in our community who require our help, as a result of inadequate budgetary provision.

“HSC Trusts have, of course, an onerous responsibility to make efficient use of all public resources. Intensive efforts are ongoing to deliver a significant level of savings this year, as detailed in the financial assessment published on 28/05/2024 by the Department of Health.

“As this document makes clear, even with these savings, a projected very significant shortfall remains that could only be filled by measures with high and catastrophic impacts.

“Such cutbacks would inevitably include bed closures as well as reductions in outpatient care, operating lists, domiciliary care and nursing care packages.

“This would impact damagingly on the whole community in Northern Ireland, particularly the most vulnerable.

“We are keenly aware of the need to reform services and invest in new technology. We know too that health drives our economy and contributes on numerous levels to well-being in society.

“The reality is that without significant additional funding this year and longer-term financial security, the Health Service will be further destabilised and the public will bear the brunt.

“We have a collective responsibility as leaders to highlight these concerns, on behalf of our dedicated workforce and all those who rely on the vital services our organisations provide.

“We will continue to work constructively with staff, elected representatives and other stakeholders to pursue the best outcomes for patients and service users.

“Health and social care services have endured a prolonged period of instability and pressure. The escalating budgetary situation represents another destabilising factor.”

Newly appointed Stormont Health Minister Mike Nesbitt
Newly appointed Stormont Health Minister Mike Nesbitt -Credit:David Young/PA Wire

Stormont’s new Health Minister Mike Nesbitt has made clear he is not prepared to implement “catastrophic cuts” to services. The Strangford MLA said while he did not underestimate challenges facing the health service he wanted to inject a sense of hope that it was not in a “fatalistic spiral to the bottom”.

He added: “I support this intervention from HSC Trust chairs. It’s important that everyone understands the scale of the budgetary pressures and the potential consequences for services and patients. I can again make clear that I will not be approving catastrophic cuts.”

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