GP care threatened by Northern Ireland budget cuts, warns BMA

GP out-of-hours care is at risk from health cuts in Northern Ireland, GP leaders have warned.

Dr Alan Stout: concern over funding cuts (Photo: BMA)
Dr Alan Stout: concern over funding cuts (Photo: BMA)

Northern Ireland's health minister Edwin Poots denied scaremongering as he told an emergency meeting of the assembly health committee on Wednesday where he would be forced to make £140m of in-year cuts to services following a budget agreement last month.

The minister, who has said he will not implement the cuts, told assembly members out-of-hours services would be affected. ‘That is an unsatisfactory situation, because, if people do not receive care from GPs, where do they end up? They end up in our emergency departments.’

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride told the committee he could not support the cuts nor ‘their implications for the health service in Northern Ireland and the patients and clients who depend on it’.

Short-term choices

‘The choices that we are being faced with are short-term and short-sighted, and, in short, I cannot recommend them to the minister,' he said.

Following the June budget monitoring round, the Northern Ireland executive government agreed a deal to slash departmental spending by £78m. The health department will be handed £20m in October depending on budget performance, but the minister said the service needs £160m.

The finance minister Simon Hamilton, a DUP party colleague of Mr Poots’, criticised the health department for poor budget management.

Deputy chairman of Northern Ireland GPC Dr Alan Stout said Mr Poots was ‘fighting the corner’ of the health service but internal wrangling meant it had become a ‘political football’.

The executive is being penalised by the Westminster government for not implementing welfare cuts which are being held up by the DUP’s power-sharing partners, Sinn Féin.

General practice is creaking

Dr Stout said locum funding and GP out-of-hours services faced cuts. ‘General practice, and the service as a whole, is creaking substantially at the moment and any cuts, and particularly unplanned cuts, are going to have huge implications in terms of patient care and patient access,' he said.

Dr Stout warned against taking money out of an already underfunded service. The GPC estimates the out-of-hours service is underfunded by £17m, while the GP service as a whole is down £43m compared with other UK services.

‘Out-of-hours care is already on its knees in Northern Ireland,' said Dr Stout, ‘with huge numbers of unfilled shifts, and the work is becoming quite unsafe in some parts.’

GPC chairman Dr Tom Black told UTV news the cuts would mean more out-of-hours centres would close and longer waiting times for patients. The cuts would be ‘catastrophic’ for patient care, he told the BBC. 

GPs are frustrated with the service bureaucracy and the executive, said Dr Stout, ‘They don't seem to pay any heed to the effect on morale in a service which is depending on morale at the moment.’

Dr Black called on politicians to ‘go off and stop the confrontation, reach consensus and solve the problem for the health service’.

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