Last week I attended the rally at Belfast City Hall, organised by the Trade Union movement against public service cuts. As Minister for Health I make no apology for fighting for increased investment in our Health Service. Everyone is aware that tough decisions will be required over the next few years but cutting the health budget would be a reckless and irresponsible move. That is why it is important to stand up for our health service.
In South Belfast we are fortunate to have some of the best healthcare facilities. Across Northern Ireland health is the biggest employer with over 70,000 employees and in South Belfast many people work in various specialities across the Health Service. At a time of economic recession with an emphasis on helping the economy grow protecting the Health Service is a logical step.
Any attempt to force through further cuts will have a significant detrimental impact resulting in patients being in pain and distress. In the past two years alone demand for health services has increased by 20% increase yet funding has only increased by less than 1% in real terms, the lowest rise in living memory. Compared with the rest of the UK, health and social care lags behind in funding. We also have a growing elderly population and one of youngest populations in the UK. Sadly, despite these startling facts, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party have voted on three occasions to cut the Health budget.
If the rest of the United Kingdom considers health to be of such importance to ring-fence their respective health budgets, then we must do the same. Protecting our health services will ultimately protect our workforce and our economy. Surely in these dire financial times it is time for some strategic thinking to be undertaken around priorities. In addition, other political representatives need to state where they stand on the Health Service. The public will be watching carefully.