Budget cuts to healthcare in Northern Ireland pose a risk to people with arthritis

12 May 2023
Deborah Alsina, CEO of Versus Arthritis, speaking at Stormont in front of Versus Arthritis sign

Last month, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, confirmed that only £7.2 billion of funding will be given for healthcare in Northern Ireland – roughly the same as the previous year.

At Versus Arthritis, we’re worried that this means a real-terms reduction in health funding for Northern Ireland. This poses a risk to people with arthritis waiting for care, including those on waiting lists for orthopaedic surgery. Orthopaedic surgeries deal with health conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, including the joints, bones, muscles and nerves.

The Department for Health has suggested that a budget of £8 billion is needed, meaning there is a large shortfall that will need to be made up.

So, on Wednesday, 10 May 2023 we wrote to the Permanent Secretary for Health, Peter May, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, to raise our concerns and demand that vital services are protected.

Political context

The Northern Ireland Assembly is still suspended due to ongoing disagreements about post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union (EU).

Senior civil servants will be making key decisions until the assembly is re-established. Civil servants are not allowed to make ‘political’ decisions. This means they have to follow the direction of policy decisions taken by the previous assembly.

It’s unclear when elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly will be held – the deadline to form an Assembly has been extended to January next year. However, people in Northern Ireland will be able to vote in local elections on Thursday the 18 of May, for the first time since 2019.

The issues for people with arthritis in Northern Ireland

There are over 500,000 people living with arthritis and musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions in Northern Ireland - around a quarter of the population. This makes MSK conditions the single biggest cause of physical disability in Northern Ireland.

It can be hard for people with arthritis and MSK conditions in Northern Ireland to access the support they need. Waiting times for Trauma and Orthopaedic surgery are already lagging behind the rest of the UK.

The latest showed that 25,623 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for orthopaedic surgery and 63% of them are waiting over 52 weeks for it.

A worrying 43% are waiting over a year to have a first appointment with a consultant – a vital step to getting the care you need. To get the backlog under control, the health service needs increased annual funding and a long-term plan to make it sustainable.

What do we want to see?

As outlined in our Northern Ireland election manifesto, we’re calling for:

  • Better support for people with arthritis - including recognising MSK conditions as a healthcare priority.
  • Timely access to joint replacement surgery for people who need it.
  • More investment in support for self-management so that people with arthritis can manage their condition effectively.
  • Action to address the impact of arthritis on people’s ability to work- for example through better signposting to in-work support schemes.

What we’re doing

We want to make sure people with arthritis can get the healthcare they need regardless of recent budget cuts. 

On Wednesday, we wrote to the Permanent Secretary for Health Peter May and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris MP to raise our concerns.

Despite the current political standstill, we will continue to influence political representatives, in particular, the party health spokespeople, so we can highlight and offer solutions to the issues around current MSK healthcare.

We will continue to lobby politicians and health decision makers in Northern Ireland to improve MSK support, and make sure people with arthritis are able to access the support they need.

Our Impossible to Ignore campaign will also ramp up the pressure in the coming months. Join our Campaigns Network to stay up to date with our campaigning on this issue and how you can get involved.

We’re here whenever you need us

You don’t need to face arthritis alone. If you would like to talk to someone, or need information or advice, we’re here to help.