Axe threat hanging over 150 hospital beds is lifted

Up to 150 beds at two Belfast hospitals earmarked for closure next month are to be saved after Government departments were told they must help pay for the fight against swine flu.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is looking at a raft of contingency cost-cutting proposals from Northern Ireland’s health trusts to address the £70m deficit they currently face.

The reprieve for the beds at the Royal Victoria and City hospitals comes after the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) was told it will receive financial assistance worth just under £35m to help cover the massive cost of its swine flu strategy.

Mr McGimpsey has also revealed that some £20m is now being released to trusts to sustain work to achieve waiting time targets, which will include referring patients to the private sector.

However, it is not known whether cost-cutting plans to send new mothers home from the Royal Victoria Jubilee Maternity Hospital six hours after giving birth are to go ahead.

Making the announcement, the minister warned that he is still considering other proposals — although to date these have not been revealed by either the DHSSPS or health trusts.

He said: “Everyone is only too aware of the significant financial difficulties my department and the health service is currently facing. We have the challenge of finding £700m in efficiency savings, coupled with addressing the years of under-investment which means our services are simply not as good as those in the rest of the UK.

“I have carefully considered all of the trusts’ contingency plans which were needed to address the funding shortfalls I faced.

“Now that I have clarification on my total budget for 2009/10, I am able to reject those proposals which would have had a significant impact on front-line services.”

The announcement has been met with a mixed reaction, with chairman of the health committee Jim Wells expressing disappointment that Mr McGimpsey has not revealed details of the cost-cutting proposals still under consideration.

“We need details as to where exactly these deficiency savings, as I call them, are coming from and how they are going to affect the people on the ground,” he said.

The British Medical Association welcomed the move to save beds but questioned whether trusts should continue to rely upon the private sector to meet waiting list targets.

A BMA spokeswoman said: “It is good news for patients that the threat of bed closures has been lifted and we welcome the acknowledgement of the hard work undertaken by healthcare staff.

“However, the BMA (NI) is disappointed that there is no mention of future investment in healthcare staff and instead a significant amount of money will be diverted into the private sector to sustain waiting time targets.”