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I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Unfortunately, however, as my colleague Michael McGimpsey said, it appears that Mr Hamilton once again has decided that he has better things to do than to be held to account by the Health Committee. Of course, this is the same Mr Hamilton who thought it appropriate four weeks ago to neglect the plight of the 373,000 people waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or an inpatient treatment at hospital. Then, last week, he failed again to respond to the Ulster Unionist debate on cancer and the SDLP motion on autism. So, today, it has come as no surprise that he thinks it is acceptable to avoid some of the most pressing issues facing his staff across the health service.
The Assembly has spent considerable hours discussing Transforming Your Care. Much of the debate has been constructive, although some of the rest has been less so. Few people will object to the overall objective of the plan, not least in ensuring that Northern Ireland's health and social care system meets patients' needs well into the future. Unfortunately, however, the initial report also made a number of errors. Its comments regarding 50% of statutory care homes were unnecessary and utterly took away from the value of it. Of course, the decision by some of the health trusts to equate the phrase, "at least 50%", to effectively mean 100% was totally disingenuous and caused very real hurt. I well remember meeting scared and frightened care home residents in my constituency, so I think that policymakers need to be much more sensitive when formulating their words.
Of course, aside from that, the implementation of TYC has been completely bungled. As was highlighted in the Committee, the Department could not even give a proper answer on how the £25 million, so far, had been spent. My party has always warned that seeking to move in excess of £80 million from secondary to primary care, at a time of growing pressures, was always unlikely. The Department effectively left the future of TYC at the mercy of monitoring rounds.
Members, demand is changing. As recently revealed by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), the number of people aged 85 and over has grown by over 1,000 each year in the last decade. During that time, the population aged 85 and over increased by 41% — six times faster than the population aged under 85. Whilst that is very welcome, it ultimately has an impact on the health service as it adapts to supporting more people with chronic conditions for longer.
However, the Department is failing even to plan for the present, let alone the future. There are serious staff shortages across our GP service, with many over 55 set to retire next year in radiology and emergency medicine, to name just a few. If people cannot see their GP on time, many of them will be forced to attend A&E, which, in turn, will cause further delays there. That led to our recommendation for the Department to prioritise the recruitment of an additional 50 GP training places.
So TYC was broadly heading in the right direction, albeit with those few issues that my party would like changed, but it was never given the attention that it deserves. The last number of Ministers have referred to it in high-level terms only, as if it was a convenient strategy to use as a fig leaf when they were challenged on what they were doing in regard to the growing problems across our health service. I hope that the Department will read the Committee's report, but if it is not followed up with action then, ultimately, it has been a waste of our time, a waste of their time and a waste of time for the staff and organisations that contributed so openly to it.