Nesbitt makes clear he will not implement ‘catastrophic cuts’ to health service

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Mike Nesbitt replaces Robin Swann

By David Young (PA)

Stormont’s new Health Minister has made clear he is not prepared to implement “catastrophic cuts” to services.

Mike Nesbitt said replacing Robin Swann in the job was the political honour of his life but also the “ultimate political challenge of my life”.

The Strangford MLA said while he did not underestimate challenges facing the health service he wanted to inject a sense of hope that it was not in a “fatalistic spiral to the bottom”.

He vowed not to shirk hard or controversial decisions in the remaining three years of the Assembly mandate.

Mr Nesbitt also addressed those questioning his suitability for the post in light of a high-profile breach of Covid-19 lockdown rules in 2020 that saw him resign as deputy chair of an Assembly committee.

The former UUP leader restated his apology from the time but acknowledged the incident represented a stain on his record that he could not wash away.

“I can only repeat the apology I offered at the time,” he said.

“It was a very serious error of judgement on my part. It’s a stain on my record that I can’t wash away.

“I can only promise that I will try my very best in this role and I understand that trying hard isn’t good enough, it’s not about effort, it’s about outcomes and I will be focused on better outcomes in my time here.”

On Tuesday, Stormont Assembly members backed this year’s budget in a vote that saw Mr Nesbitt, Mr Swann and their UUP colleagues oppose the spending plan.

In his last day in post, Mr Swann warned that the budget allocation for his department would inflict “irreparable” damage on Northern Ireland’s health service, while Mr Nesbitt, urged MLAs to delay the vote for a number of weeks until the potential of up to an extra £300 million of Treasury funding was made available.

Outgoing minister Mr Swann warned fellow Executive ministers that no UUP minister would introduce the cost-saving measures he says are required to balance the department’s budget.

That raised the prospect of Mr Nesbitt overspending the departmental budget when he takes over the role.

The UUP had argued that the setting of the budget should be delayed to factor in further Treasury funds that will be available to Stormont in the June monitoring round – part of the in-year process of reallocating returned or new money to departments.

Mr Swann has quit as minister to concentrate on running for a seat in the Westminster election.

In his first media appearance since succeeding him, Mr Nesbitt insisted it was tenable for the UUP to remain in the Executive despite voting against the budget.

He said the monitoring round could release significant funds to the health service that would go a long way to easing some of the challenges it faces.

Speaking about his appointment, Mr Nesbitt told reporters in Belfast: “I think it’s the political honour of my life to have the opportunity to follow Robin Swann into the role and it’s certainly the ultimate political challenge of my life to take up as Health Minister at this time.”

Asked if he was prepared to overspend his budget, the minister said: “I am not prepared to encounter catastrophic cuts.

“But let’s remember there is a significant amount of money coming very soon in June monitoring and I will certainly be pitching for a considerable amount of that.

“There’s June monitoring with perhaps £200 million or maybe even £300 million to come. If we can get a significant percentage of that that will go a long way to easing some of the challenges.”

He added: “I know that the budget is front and foremost, as it should be because it’s very challenging, but I would like to put a bit of hope back into discussions about the National Health Service.

“I want to give a bit of hope that the health service may be turning a corner.

“There’s a balance between being honest and realistic about the challenges facing the National Health Service, the health and social care system, but also giving people a little bit of hope that things are not in a kind of fatalistic spiral to the bottom.

“I don’t think it has to be like that. And it’s my determination that it won’t be like that.”

Mr Nesbitt made clear that he shared the stance of his predecessor when it came to the type of cuts health trusts have suggested may be required for the department to balance its budget.

“I can only repeat that I will do what Robin said and not implement catastrophic cuts,” he said.

The minister was speaking on a visit to L’Arche Village in Belfast – a facility that provides supported living and day opportunities and services for adults with learning disabilities.

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