POLITICIANS have returned to work to a packed in-tray of issues - but few are arguably more pressing locally than health. 

In Fermanagh, newly-appointed Health Minister Robin Swann will face pressure on myriad fronts, including ongoing issues at South West Acute Hospital (SWAH),  record-high waiting lists, and long-overdue pay settlements for local healthcare staff. 

These long-standing issues carry a human cost. Every deferred appointment; every journey out of the county for treatment; every day without pay parity; each has a major impact on patients and staff alike.

For people like Shelley Bass, negative experiences with the health service will leave a lasting impact.

Shelley has urged politicians to prioritize the health sector after she lost her husband, Ray, just last week.

Ray, who was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, was discharged from Belfast City Hospital to his home in Fermanagh in January without a care package in place.

As a result, Shelley was forced to nurse him, while dealing with the reality that he would pass away within weeks. 

A care package was eventually put in place, and the Western Trust issued an apology for the distress caused. 

On the back of her experience, Shelley has called on politicians to “think of the human cost”.

“I have been left with so many unanswered questions from what happened,” she said. “It's bad enough to lose your husband in 20 days, but to lose him with this going on in the background makes it all the worse.

"Politicians and health trusts need to knock their heads together and start putting people first. They aren’t dealing with people. They aren’t thinking of the human cost.

“I know NHS staff are doing their best in the circumstances, but to be honest the health service currently resembles that of a third-world country.

“I thought it was bad in England, which is where I am originally from - but I had no idea how bad it is over here. People are dying on trolleys. When I was in A&E with Ray, I saw people on trolleys for 48 hours before being seen to. It’s ridiculous. 

“The NHS is so underfunded. I would like to speak to Rishi Sunak about how bad things are in the NHS at the moment. Action needs to be taken."

On Saturday, politicians returned to Stormont for the first time in almost two years. During the impasse, Emergency General Surgery was temporarily suspended at SWAH, which sparked major concern and controversy locally. 

In response, a group committed to seeing the service restored at the hospital – Save Our Acute Services (SOAS) – was set up, and continues to actively campaign. 

Helen Hamill, SOAS, has called for an urgent meeting with Robin Swann amid Stormont’s return. 

During his last stint as Health Minister, Mr. Swann urged that “no stone was left unturned” when it came to recruitment at SWAH. 

“We have always said that having politicians around the table, and having someone in a ministerial position, is essential for any progress,” Helen said. “Therefore we are delighted there has been a minister appointed, we have already requested an urgent meeting with Robin Swann.

“When he was Health Minister a number of years ago, Mr. Swann urged the Western Trust to leave no stone unturned in its ongoing recruitment efforts.

“SOAS hopes that he continues exactly where he left off. He needs to reiterate that there were no considerable efforts made to recruit surgeons to be based at SWAH.

“We are optimistic that the case for SWAH will be made very strongly. This is a positive development.”

Following the restoration of power-sharing, health workers will be eagerly awaiting commitments on long-awaited pay awards.  Pay parity or lack thereof, has long been a sticking point for Northern Ireland health workers and was a major factor in a recent mass day of action from health workers in January. 

Benny Cassidy, a porter at the Erne Hospital, has called on politicians to “do what is right” by delivering pay parity. 

“Pay has been an issue for too long, and politicians now need to act,” said Benny, who also is a member of Unison.

“We are lower paid than any other part of the UK, and this has caused major staffing issues that will need to be reversed. 

“People have been trying to make ends meet in the absence of an Executive. Now that we are where we are, pay rises, which have already been agreed upon, need to be delivered.

“At the core, we want politicians to do what’s right. They have been elected to serve the people of Northern Ireland, and they now need to do that. 

“They need to look at the bigger picture. There is so much happening out there that needs to be addressed. 

“Yes, people are frustrated, but it’s not too late. Our leaders can make things better. There is a good feeling generally.”