Northern Ireland

£60m 'helps fill health service black hole'

Surgeons Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northern Ireland's health budget for 2016-17 is £4.9bn - a rise of only 1% in real terms on the previous year

The extra £60m announced by the Northern Ireland secretary to improve health services here will instead be spent filling a "huge financial black hole" in the health budget, insiders say.

James Brokenshire announced the funding in July as part of a reallocation of funds known as a monitoring round.

But rather than tackling hospital waiting lists or purchasing new cancer drugs, most of the £60m will go towards addressing the health service deficit.

One senior official told me this means the system - which receives an annual budget of £4.9bn from Stormont - can keep hobbling along instead of improving.

'Range of pressures'

Should we be shocked, disappointed, or even angry?

As it's public money and in the public's interest, the question to the Department of Health seemed fair enough.

The answer, however, lacked detail.

In fact, the department was unable to provide a breakdown of where the millions are going, instead highlighting the money was helping reduce the ongoing pressures on Health and Social Care (HSC).

"The department and HSC continues to be subjected to a range of pressures, including significant demand for front-line services right across HSC from the hospital sector, through community services to social care," said a spokeswoman.

"Any additional money for the health service is very welcome, and work continues on consideration of the overall financial position."

That financial position isn't good. This week Northern Ireland's five health trusts were informed they should prepare to make further savings - in the region of about £80m.

In an unusual move, the Department of Health may consult the public on how these savings should be made, as opposed to civil servants deciding where the axe should fall.

Not only does this shift the blame, but it also applies pressure to politicians to get back to business on the hill.

Brexit fall-out

In an ideal world, most of the £60m would help address waiting list pressures.

Just £2m could buy 200 hip, 200 gall bladder and 200 cataract operations.

Breedagh Hughes, Director of the Royal College of Midwives, told BBC News NI she was disappointed.

"That additional money should be going to front-line services to improving conditions for patients and addressing waiting lists," she said.

"We know there is going to be a fall-out from Brexit, we know we are going to lose staff.

"I would like to have seen that money go towards growing our own nurses and midwives and planning for the future."

While the £60m may be all but spent, the £200m health transformation fund continues to wait in the wings.

That fund emerged in June following the DUP-Tory deal to prop up Theresa May's minority government.

While that money is more likely to help tackling waiting lists, and will allow the system some breathing space, when this money will be released is anyone's guess.

Those working on the front line, and who are charged with managing the system, say patients and staff have a right to know when hospital waiting lists are likely to start going down.

After all, they are the worst they have been in 20 years.