Northern Ireland

Can NI learn from Manchester's model over reaching consensus on health?

Simon Hamilton
Image caption Mr Hamilton wants politicians to reach consensus ahead of next week's summit on health and social care

Health Minister Simon Hamilton has called for politics to be taken out of the debate on health.

He wants politicians to reach consensus ahead of next week's summit on health and social care.

Is this realistic? To some extent, politics and health have always been intertwined.

The national health service, established in 1948, was born out of a political decision.

Its founder Aneurin Bevan set the tone when he said "when a bed pan is dropped on a hospital floor, its noise should resound in the palace of Westminister".

That twin track approach has continued ever since.

From the so-called "War of Jennifer's ear" in the 1992 general election campaign to the current dispute over junior doctors contracts in England, issues involving health are guaranteed to provoke fierce political rows.

In Northern Ireland, the debate can be no less contentious.

There have been political disagreements between the parties on many issues - including proposed hospital closures, prescription charges, abortion and the current lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.

Can this change? Well, politicians in Greater Manchester appear to have reached broad consensus on what they want for their area's health.

In April, they are having the powers over health and social care devolved to them.

It follows a report by a former health Minister Lord Warner which said Manchester was one of England's sickest cities and likened its high death rates with a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing into the region every month.

Image caption Kieran Quinn said it was vital they agreed the plan beforehand

The new plan, which politicians signed up to in advance, includes integrating health and social care and will reduce the number of emergency departments from 10 to four.

The ten councils and 12 local health authorities will be in control of the £6bn budget.

The Labour leader of Tameside Council, Kieran Quinn, said it was vital they agreed the plan beforehand.

To this end, they have signed what is called a memorandum of understanding.

"Our destination is to have a world class health care system," he said.

"We believe that for a variety of reasons the health care of our residents has been let down by national decisions, taken in Westminister or Whitehall.

"We'd love to have had some of Northern Ireland's devolution at the time you got it. I think how far ahead we could be.

Image caption Mr Anstee said he wanted people to remember the Conservatives "for taking some of these bold decisions"

"If we didn't have a consensus about the way forward, then all we'd do is squabble and backbite about the way forward.

"We do that occasionally - Greater Manchester is not a utopia. But when it comes to significant areas like health, that's too important to squabble over."

His Conservative opposite number on Trafford Council, Sean Anstee, said the will to agree was necessary.

"I want people to remember us for taking some of these bold decisions that are going to say 'actually if we don't do this, we've got a health care system that will fall over, a social care system that will fall over'," he said.

"Will our political resolve and resilience be tested over the next few years? Of course it will.

Image caption Dr Chand has been a GP in greater Manchester for more than 30 years

"But is there resolve amongst us to say we've got to do something differently, using evidence to do that? Yes, we will."

Crucially, the plan has the backing of healthcare professionals. Dr Kailash Chand is the deputy chair of the BMA in the UK. He has also been a GP in Greater Manchester for more than 30 years and he said he's hopeful it will work.

He had some reservations over the fact there will be no extra funding.

"I'm to start with very, very optimistic because the people who are working on it, they have a vision and they want to take it forward," he said.

"We will co-operate with them and we will give them another couple of years to deliver it.

Image caption Greater Manchester is only at the start of a long process - and its history and politics are very different to Northern Ireland's

"You can't see the results in two days or two months. The real results we'll have to see in four or five years."

Greater Manchester is only at the start of a long process - and its history and politics are very different to Northern Ireland's.

But with their politicians having a signed deal on the way forward for health, at the moment, they are optimistic.

It is now over to Northern Ireland's MLAs to see if they can do something similar.