The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has raised its concerns about the state of the Northern Ireland (NI) healthcare system referring to the temporary suspension of emergency general surgery at the South West Acute Hospital.

They say that the health care services were under immense pressure and the care of rural people was being hit the hardest as a result.

UFU deputy president William Irvine said, “Our members are growing increasingly distressed about the current state of our National Health Service (NHS) and are fearful of more local services being transferred to other locations. The temporary suspension of the emergency general surgery at the South West Acute Hospital is ongoing with no updates or indication if or when the service will be reinstated and more recently, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust announced changes to maternity services at the Causeway Hospital - births will no longer take place here. Shortages of professionals in key specialties can be attributed to both of these changes in service. A particular concern for our membership is the high risk of total destabilisation in general practice that has been alluded to by those working in the field.”

In the past year, 14 GP practices, mostly in rural areas, have returned their contracts to the Department of Health and the UFU understands that 30 more practices are on the ‘brink’ of doing the same. Again, this is due to workforce recruitment and retention issues which is particularly acute in Co Fermanagh. The diabolical waiting lists in NI compared to England, Scotland and Wales, also means that patients, especially children, are suffering.

“Healthcare professionals are not machines and with so many of their colleagues resigning, they’re being put under immense pressure, overworked and burnt out. The Department of Health need to step up and do more to protect their staff as well as rural patients. They’re not being challenged in any shape or form to address the staff shortages and get things under control.

“Trying to sustain services temporarily is not a solution. It’s costly for the taxpayer, unsustainable in the long term and untimely, long term funding plans need to be agreed. We have members who are burdened with developing health issues because they’re not being seen by a healthcare professional in good time. It’s unjust. Action is needed to prevent the total collapse of our NHS.

“On the behalf of rural people in NI, and with no political avenue to express our concerns, we’re backing calls to prioritise and incentivise rural recruitment and retention. We have fantastic healthcare facilities and rural locations for family living, which coupled together, have the potential to offer a great way of life for healthcare professionals. Work life balance and professional support is critically important and the opportunity is there for healthcare providers and rural communities to collaborate and attract staff to work in rural areas. This mimics successful approaches in other countries and UFU are already supporting initiatives to encourage this.

“The acuity of the situation cannot be overemphasised. On a global stage, we’re failing to promote what we have on our doorstep. We need to be doing more to compete against recruitment drives from countries such as Australia, because at present, we’re losing too many young, talented professionals. Many of whom have chosen to settle abroad with their families. Staff shortages is an issue that can be resolved but it requires sustained investment and reform, drive and a collective effort,” said Mr Irvine.