This is an important week.
Not just because it marks the first anniversary of the restored Executive and my role as Health Minister, but more importantly because it’s the week when all GP surgeries across Northern Ireland have received boxes of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to start vaccinating patients aged 80 and over. Almost 14,000 of the over 80s have already received their jab.
I know that getting a call from their local surgery asking them to attend for their vaccine is bringing tremendous relief for so many elderly people who’ve been hoping and praying for this day to come so that they can leave behind a long and lonely year of isolation and distance from their loved ones, and a year of grief and loss for so many families.
Last week I watched media footage of 94 year old Eileen Lynch giving a thumbs up to the TV cameras as she emerged from Dr Michael McKenna’s GP surgery in West Belfast, one of a small number of practices taking part in the early roll-out of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. And I have seen the joy of care home residents who began receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine last month. Our teams of vaccinators have now visited every care home bar a small proportion that are still dealing with outbreaks.
I am full of admiration for the resilience of our senior citizens. As our most vulnerable, they deserve to be at the front of the queue to be given the vaccine that will free them – and eventually all of us - from the grip of this terrible virus.
We have started a new year with renewed hope, tempered of course by the reality of the enormous challenge that still lies ahead of us, particularly in the coming days and weeks. All of us, citizens, politicians and healthcare professionals alike, will need to draw on every ounce of our energy and resolve to get through what will be the most serious surge of infections, hospitalisations and, tragically, deaths.
Almost ten months since the first death with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, the Department’s daily dashboard still contains some very sobering information. Behind every death statistic, expressed on graphs and charts, is a loved and cherished person and a grieving family. My heart goes out to each and every one who has suffered loss this past year. That depth of suffering has strengthened my resolve to do all I can as Health Minister to make sure that no stone is left unturned in our efforts to combat Covid-19 and protect our health service, specially for those who need it most.
This time last year when I took up office alongside my Ministerial colleagues, this dreadful virus had no name and very few people had even heard of its deadly existence. Now scientists around the world have given us the highly effective drugs with which to treat it, and the precious vaccines that will really help us to get back to normal life. That is an incredible and hugely welcome achievement but I have learned during the past year that despite the long standing and systemic frailties of our health and social care service, there are huge reserves of determination, innovation, dedication and compassion amongst our staff. We have so much to thank them for.
When I became Minister, my first task was to find a resolution to the dispute over pay and staffing which had led to industrial action by nurses and health workers. I was pleased that with the agreement of the Executive, I was able to immediately restore pay parity with England and bring about an end to that immensely stressful period for our health service.
The pandemic has starkly highlighted the need for sustained investment in our health and social care workforce. Staffing shortfalls were, of course, a major problem before this virus. This is a key priority and I have worked to ensure that investment is made for the workforce of tomorrow.
I’m acutely aware that our waiting times were awful before Covid and they will be even worse after it. So when we get through the worst of this pandemic – and it will pass – I’ve made it clear that tackling our unacceptable waiting lists should be my Department’s top priority. For years now too many people across Northern Ireland have been waiting for far too long for essential treatment and care, and I want to change that.
The toll that the pandemic has taken on mental health has underlined the need for greater resources and fresh approaches in this area of healthcare. One of my first meetings was with families who have lost loved ones to suicide and it was a moving and humbling encounter with people who live with their pain every day.
The appointment in June 2020 of the interim Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, has been key to ensuring that the needs and voices of those who matter most are at the heart of what we’re doing across Government to improve mental health services. The publication just before Christmas of the ten year Mental Health Strategy was another important moment in this endeavour and I hope that everyone will take the opportunity to have their say on how we shape future services for those who need and deserve better mental health care.
We are now in the most difficult winter that our health service has ever endured. I have loudly echoed the stark warnings from our leading doctors and Trust managers and I know how difficult it has been for them to make decisions about cancelling operations in order to ensure that our hospitals can cope with the numbers of very sick patients who will need lifesaving care in these coming weeks.
I urge everyone to give our health and social care workers the support they so desperately need by sticking closely to the new regulations introduced to save lives and protect our health service. Please stay home and if you have to go out, follow public health advice about social distancing, wearing face coverings and remembering hand hygiene because we need to all we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
The vaccine has given us all real cause for optimism, with more than 100,000 doses now administered to elderly people and healthcare workers, but we still have to weather this crisis. Let’s all do this together, so we can be together again.
Robin Swann MLA
Minister for Health
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