Deirdre Heenan: ‘When strong leadership was absolutely critical to rescue a system on the brink, we have been lumbered with interim appointment’

Robin Swann has announced he will step down as health minister to contest the South Antrim seat in the next general election

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Health Minister Robin Swann has written to junior doctors due to take part in strike action next month
Health Minister Robin Swann. (Liam McBurney/PA)

As widely predicted Robin Swann announced yesterday that when the General Election is called, he will step down as the Health Minister.

At a time when our healthcare system urgently needs stability, continuity, a long-term vision and an unrelenting focus on the mammoth task, we have ended up someone who sees the role as a stepping stone to the green benches in Westminster.

When strong leadership was absolutely critical to rescue a system on the brink, we have been lumbered with an interim appointment.

It simply defies belief that this was allowed to happen. It is nothing less than catastrophic that health is in this invidious position.

This omnishambles should surely be the final nail in the coffin for our current model of care. This debacle in a week where five Executive Ministers could turn up to the opening of a distillery but not one could attend the launch of a report on the children’s waiting lists in Stormont. Change cannot come soon enough.

Remember when health was the Assembly’s number one priority? During the two-year hiatus our political representatives never missed an opportunity to pronounce how they would fix the system and provide the long-suffering public with a world-class health service. Both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister referenced fixing the healthcare crisis as a priority in their maiden speeches to the house.

Yet when push came to shove both the DUP and Sinn Fein sidestepped the single biggest challenge in the Executive and supported the UUP to take over at the helm.

If healthcare was the burning issue, the one if resolved that could make a real difference to people’s lives wouldn’t they have been wrestling to take control?

It was all bluster. Instead, it fell again to the UUP, the smallest party in the Executive. A party whose leader wanted to go into opposition but couldn’t convince his divided party to get out of the DUP’s slipstream.

The portfolio that accounts for over half of the block grant, led by the party with the least power and influence. What could go wrong?

To add insult to injury, shortly after Robin Swann assumed the role of health minister for the second time, he announced that he would be running for a seat in Westminster in the forthcoming general election.

Proposing to take on this critical role, literally life and death, with one eye on putting up election posters and canvassing for another job defies belief. How could we possibly take seriously his stated commitment to addressing the myriad of issues in health and social care?

Shortly after the announcement of Swann’s selection for the South Antrim seat, in the face of criticism Doug Beattie appeared to realise that he had made a catastrophic miscalculation and temporary resiled from the decision, saying he “might” withdraw Swann as a candidate.

Very quickly though, he doubled down on his initial decision saying, “he chose to hit the ground running and that is with Robin Swann who knows the brief”. Hit the ground running? Twelve weeks in and what has been changed? Precious little.

Given the grim situation, at the very least one would have expected a sense of urgency, a determination to address long standing issues, a detailed waiting list strategy, a vision, a list of priorities, a sense of hope.

Instead, what we have been given is the usual diatribe of excuses, hand-wringing and parroted cliches about co-production. In an early speech the minister lamented the fact that transformation was hard, and expectations were too high.

Hardly the stuff to inspire confidence. We are told that a “blueprint” to fix the healthcare system is imminent. Messaging around this is confused and contradictory. What exactly is it, does it address infrastructure, reconfiguration, social care, primary care, workforce planning or productivity?

Both the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Surgeons report that they have not been properly consulted. One might have thought deliberating with the people who work at the coalface prior to publication of any ‘plan’ might have been a no-brainer. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

The public are told ad nauseum, that the problem is money. We need more money. If only we had more money. Every healthcare system in the world would welcome more money, but as it currently stands, we spend more per head of population that any other region of the UK, with by far the worst outcomes.

The 2022 Fiscal Council report on our health and social care system highlighted serious issues with productivity, inefficiencies, governance and accountability. One can only assume that it is gathering dust on a shelf along with the raft of other reports highlighting a system not fit for purpose.

The minister now states that he needs a billion pounds to fix the system. Does anyone really believe that if he was gifted this money in the morning, he’d have the faintest notion of how to spend it?

Robin Swann had already accepted the nomination for South Antrim when he took on the role as health minister. Did he really believe that he had the capacity and ability to do both?

Or was the health ministry a self-serving opportunity for profile. He now claims that he wants to go to Westminster to be a voice for the health service in Northern Ireland. Are we really to believe that as a lone voice amongst 650 MPs that he thinks that this is where he can affect change.

Oh, come on, stop gaslighting us. He was handed the opportunity to make a real difference as the health minister in the devolved government. Wanting both and thinking that this is in any way credible or appropriate smacks of breath-taking arrogance.

The health crisis can be fixed, there are solutions, but this is debacle is making a bad situation worse. Mr Swann is a minister in name only. In the name of God, go.