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 stated.
This rebuilding process can secure better ways of delivering services but will require innovation, sustained investment and society-wide support.
Services will not be able to resume as before. Rebuilding will be significantly constrained by the continuing threat from COVID-19 and the need to protect the public and staff from the virus.
Mr Swann today published a Strategic Framework for Rebuilding Health and Social Care Services. Complementing this document, Northern Ireland’s six Trusts have published plans setting out the immediate work being done in their areas.
The Health Minister today said: “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.
“All this will impact heavily on our 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 many intense 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.”
The Minister added: “I don’t want to simply restore the health and social system to the way it was at the beginning of 2020.
“That would do a disservice to our great staff and the people of Northern Ireland. I honestly believe we can make it better. That will require patience, careful planning, sustained investment and collective support – not just around the Executive table but across society as a whole.”
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 daycase 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 daycase and diagnostics, albeit with reduced capacity due to infection control constraints.