Swann reveals future of Northern Ireland health service post Covid-19

Northern Ireland faces a massive challenge rebuilding health and social care in the wake of the first Covid-19 wave, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.Speaking at the Northern Ireland Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Swann said that the rebuilding process can secure better ways of delivering services but will require innovation, sustained investment and society-wide support.

He said that services will not be able to resume as before and that rebuilding will be significantly constrained by the continuing threat from Covid-19 and the need to protect the public and staff from the virus. “Our health and social care system was in very serious difficulties long before Coronavirus reached these shores. The virus has taken the situation to a whole new level. The Health and Social Care system has had its own lockdown – services were scaled back substantially to keep people safe and to focus resources on caring for those with Covid-19.

“As we emerge from the first wave of the pandemic, it is no easy task to build services back up to pre-existing levels. The virus remains a very real threat. Normal business will not be possible while that remains. Keeping the public and staff safe is an absolute priority. That means enforcing social distancing and separating Covid and non-Covid care as much as possible.” The Health Minister said that that social distancing measures will “heavily impact” the capacity of the system to provide appointments, diagnostic tests, operations and a wide range of other services.

“Think of all the ways shops, restaurants and other businesses will have to reduce capacity to ensure social distancing. How much more important will this be for hospitals and other services who are caring for ill and vulnerable people?“There are other serious pressures too. Long-term demand for PPE across health and social care and wider society will be substantial. The Department’s budgetary position continues to be hugely challenging. And we will also have to retain additional capacity in the health system in anticipation of a potential second Covid-19 wave.”

The Health Minister said that despite the pressures, there are opportunities to make improvements.“I have seen so many examples of excellence, innovation and commitment as our health and social care staff rose to the challenges created by Covid-19. Decisions were taken at pace, services were re-configured, mountains were moved. Staff have worked across traditional boundaries time and time again. I cannot thank them enough. We must build on that spirit in the months and years ahead. Innovations like telephone triage and video consultations will be embedded in primary and secondary care.”Mr Swann added that the health system can’t go back to the way it was and that it must be improved.

Mr Swann announced the creation of a new Management Board for Rebuilding HSC Services. This will broadly consist of senior Department of Health officials, Trust Chief Executives and other HSC leaders. As an appendix to the Strategic Framework, the Department has also published a comprehensive assessment of the impact of Covid-19 across key services. As part of the rebuilding commitment, HSC Trusts have produced and published plans for scaling up services in the immediate period to 30 June. These plans include ongoing emphasis on high priority cancer services, and other urgent conditions. In relation to day-case and diagnostics, including endoscopy, Trusts have prioritised inpatient, urgent and red flag investigations across all sites. Patients falling into these categories will continue to be the priority, but all Trusts are also increasing scheduled routine activity for day-case and diagnostics, albeit with reduced capacity due to infection control constraints.

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