North/South Ministerial Council: Health and Food Safety

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 13th December 2021.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:30 pm, 13th December 2021

I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I wish to make the following statement on the twenty-fourth North/South Ministerial Council meeting in the health and food safety sectoral format, which was held at the North/South Ministerial Council joint secretariat offices in Armagh and by videoconference on 14 October. Junior Minister Declan Kearney MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting, while the Irish Government were represented by Stephen Donnelly TD, Minister for Health, and Roderic O'Gorman TD, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Minister Donnelly chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with junior Minister Kearney, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The following topics were discussed and decisions were taken where appropriate. The Council expressed its appreciation and good wishes to Mrs Bernie McCrory following her retirement from the post of chief executive officer of Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) and acknowledged her significant contribution to cooperation in the health sector over many years.

The Council noted the recent publication of the report on mother-and-baby institutions and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland and the actions being progressed by the Irish Government in response to the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. It was also agreed that the concerns and needs of those who spent time in those institutions would be discussed more substantively at a future meeting of the Council.

The Council received an update from the Irish Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, and the Executive’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, on the health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council restated its appreciation to all those who have played a part in the response to the pandemic, particularly the health and social care workers who continue to lead on the front-line response. Ministers noted the ongoing valuable cooperation taking place between the Health Ministers, Chief Medical Officers and health administrations in both jurisdictions to deliver an effective public health response. We welcomed the continuing collaboration between the two jurisdictions on the future development of the proximity apps and noted the advanced discussions between the two Administrations on a data-sharing agreement in relation to passengers arriving into each jurisdiction. Ministers noted that officials from both jurisdictions will continue to consider learnings from the pandemic and exchange views to foster commonality in their approach, where possible, and provide a progress update at a future NSMC health meeting.

The Council welcomed the progress made to date in implementing the Council's current work programme in the health sector and noted that the Departments of Health in both jurisdictions continue to engage on that matter and have identified additional areas that have potential for further development and collaboration between the health authorities in both jurisdictions. Ministers noted that work to ensure that the work programme reflects the priorities of each Administration will continue and that a further draft revised work programme will be presented for consideration at a future NSMC meeting in the health sector.

The Council noted the successful enactment of the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 and the launch of Northern Ireland’s new substance use strategy, Making Life Better — Preventing Harm and Empowering Recovery. We also noted the continued progress on the development and implementation of strategies to prevent the harm related to alcohol and drug misuse in both jurisdictions, as well as the potential for further collaboration on issues connected with alcohol and drug use, such as the sharing of learnings through the North/ South alcohol policy advisory group. The Council noted the potential alignment of tobacco legislation to promote public health, particularly in young people and children. Ministers noted the update on suicide prevention initiatives in both jurisdictions, including the joint working on the self-harm registry and the potential for further joint working on suicide prevention.

The Council also noted the updates on the All-island Congenital Heart Disease Network, including the establishment of regional centres and training programmes, as well as recent updates on the North/South living donor exchange kidney transplant service.

The Council noted the ongoing success of the radiotherapy services at Altnagelvin Area Hospital and the fact that a review of the service level agreement has been undertaken. Ministers noted the updated position regarding the Ireland-Northern Ireland National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium, with the first implementation group meeting held on 13 October. The Council welcomed the public consultation on the draft cancer strategy for Northern Ireland 2021-2031 and the development of a cancer recovery plan, Building Back: Rebuilding Better, which includes the need to adopt innovative ways to deliver services that have been identified during the pandemic and is aligned with the first three years of the cancer strategy.

Ministers also noted the work of the US-lreland Research and Development Partnership in relation to cancer research and the renewal of co-funding arrangements made to Northern Ireland by the Medical Research Council. The Council noted that the All-Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care (AIIHPC) Palliative Care Week took place between 12 and 18 September 2021 and welcomed the ongoing initiatives to provide support to those requiring their services during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also welcomed the extra €1·76 million of funding awarded to the Cross-border Healthcare Intervention Trials in Ireland Network (CHITIN) and noted the uplift in award results and an extension of the programme activity to June 2023.

The Council noted that the updating of the protocol between Northern Ireland and Ireland for handling inter-jurisdictional child cases is now complete and that the revised protocol came into effect in August 2021. Ministers noted that a knowledge exchange forum of child protection practitioners working at an operational level in both jurisdictions has been established to focus initially on the sharing of learning from implementing the signs of safety methodology; that additional opportunities to extend the remit of the group will be developed; and that an update will be provided at a future North/South Ministerial Council meeting.

Ministers received an update from the Food Safety Promotion Board — Safefood — on the progress made by the body since the last sectoral meeting, including campaigns on weight management, handwashing and food safety. The North/South Ministerial Council noted Safefood's high-level achievements during the period. The Council noted that the body has developed and distributed various resources in educational settings, delivered events including webinars and a podcast series and promoted healthy eating guidelines. Ministers also noted that Safefood has engaged with customers on social media and has carried out research on food allergens, sustainable food policy and fiscal and pricing policies related to food and non-alcoholic drinks. The North/South Ministerial Council noted that the body has developed various networks including community food initiatives (CFIs) and the Knowledge Network e-learning platform and is also delivering community food initiatives such as "CFI at home" projects.

The Council noted the update provided on the recruitment process for the post of chief executive officer of Safefood. The Council also noted the extension of Mr Raymond Dolan's term of office in the post of CEO until the recruitment process has been completed and a new CEO is in a position to take up the appointment. The Council appointed Damien McCallion, Irene Collins, Ken McKenzie and Elizabeth Keane to the advisory board of the Food Safety Promotion Board from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2026, with Mr McCallion to serve as vice chairperson. Eddie Rooney was reappointed as a member and to serve as chairperson of the advisory board of the Food Safety Promotion Board from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2026.

The Council appointed Fiona Walsh and Niall Greene to the board of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission — the Loughs Agency — from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2024 and Heather Mackey, Frances Lucy, Jack Keyes, Declan Little and Conor Corr from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2026, with Ms Mackey to serve as chairperson. The Council appointed Richard Kennedy to the post of chairperson of the board of InterTradelreland from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2026. The Council appointed Maighread Ni Chonghaile to the board of the North/South Language Body from 13 December 2021 to 12 December 2026. The Council appointed Christopher Brooke, Katy Best, Kathryn Thompson, John McGrillen, Laura McCorry and Harry Connolly to serve as directors of Tourism Ireland CLG from19 December 2021 to 18 December 2026, with Mr Brooke to serve as chairperson.

The Council noted the progress achieved since the special EU programmes sectoral meeting in October 2020 on the development of the 2021-27 PEACE PLUS programme and that work is continuing to deliver an agreed programme. Ministers also noted that a public consultation for the new programme was launched on 10 March and concluded on 12 May 2021 and that further refinement of the cooperation document has taken place to reflect the stakeholder input received. The Council noted that the draft PEACE PLUS programme has been approved by both Administrations. The Council approved the PEACE PLUS programme proposals that have been prepared by the Special EU Programmes Body and noted that, following NSMC approval, the draft PEACE PLUS programme cooperation document will be submitted to the European Commission for approval as soon as possible.

We agreed that the next NSMC health and food safety meeting will be held in early 2022.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 13th December 2021

Minister, recently I visited health and social care facilities in Dublin with my party colleague David Conlon, and I saw at first hand some of the tremendous work that is being done. As you know, health arrangements between the North and the South are becoming increasingly routine and include the paediatric congenital cardiac services in Dublin's children's hospitals and the North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin, which treats cancer patients from both sides of the border. Did you and Minister Donnelly discuss any further areas where collaboration can be developed so that the whole island can share and benefit from medical expertise North and South, including the anguished situation around paediatric pathology, which continues not to be available in the North?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Chair for his points. From my statement, he will be aware of a number of ongoing cross-border initiatives that we discussed and provided updates on, not just in regard to children's cardiac services, cooperation on which is long-established and very important, but to the living donor exchange kidney transplant service and cancer services in the north-west.

The issue of paediatric pathology was raised and discussed. That is an issue and a challenge, not just for us but for our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. Both Ministers have asked their departmental officials to explore what can be done and look at whether there could be a recruitment process or a service delivered that would serve all across both jurisdictions so that we can see what best serves the people of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when they experience the very traumatic event of the loss of a child.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. As we approach two years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, can the Minister detail how regularly engagement takes place between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to ensure that data is shared between the two jurisdictions? Can he also detail why it took so long to agree the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the sharing of travel information?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I will start with the last point about the passenger locator form. The data-sharing agreement on passengers who arrive in the Republic of Ireland and travel on to Northern Ireland has allowed health officials in the Public Health Agency (PHA) to reciprocate that arrangement. That issue is ongoing and has been raised numerous times by all parties in the House. All parties that sit on the Northern Ireland Executive have expressed their frustration with the Republic of Ireland Government and officials at a number of meetings that I have attended. At one point, the First Minister and deputy First Minister asked the Prime Minister to raise the issue with the Taoiseach, such was the concern that the data-sharing was not taking place. The system has been operational since 15 October, so the Member is right that it took almost 18 months, but we have got to where we are and the data is being transferred.

Our Chief Medical Officers meet on a weekly basis at times when we see an increase in cases across these islands. During quieter periods, they step it down to once a fortnight, but at present they are back to engaging once a week. The public health agencies on either side of the border also engage regularly to share cross-border knowledge about outbreaks, should we see something on this side of the border that may concern them or vice versa. There is good data exchange between our public health agencies on where we are seeing increases in cases and on what work can be done collaboratively.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. Does the Minister agree that the meeting dealt with real-life issues that genuinely impact on people across this island, such as PEACE PLUS, board appointments, child protection protocols, cancer and health research cooperation, health cooperation and the COVID-19 response, and that those in the DUP who seek to frustrate and block that work should simply grow up?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his point. My party has continued to stress the importance of North/South Ministerial Council meetings in the health format, because the health of our people recognises no borders. As I indicated earlier, there is a lot more collaborative work that we can and need to do. We cannot let politics get in the way of the work that was done at the meeting, especially during a pandemic.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, you spoke of the cancer services in the north-west and of your continuing work on that with the Republic of Ireland. Can you give us an update on that?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member. She may be aware that we are now part of an Ireland-Northern Ireland-National Cancer Institute Consortium on which there is cooperation on research and technologies and a sharing of information on future drugs between ourselves, the Republic of Ireland and the National Cancer Institute in the United States. There is also ongoing work on the updating of our cancer strategy and on how that will support cross-border work.

Evidence of the ongoing work regarding the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care shows best practice for those services.

The North West Cancer Centre in Altnagelvin continues to be a successful example of North/South cooperation and brings a cross-border dimension to cancer services. The Member will be aware that it was officially opened in May 2017. It provides access to radiotherapy treatment for half a million people and generally reduces travel time for patients in both jurisdictions. Between January and August, a total of 150 patients who were referred from the Republic of Ireland commenced treatment, which is an increase from 130 for the same period last year. That is covered by the memorandum of understanding. That work continues, and we look forward to embedding and sharing practice regarding the further development of our cancer strategy.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 4:00 pm, 13th December 2021

I thank the Health Minister for his statement. At our recent meeting of the all-party group on cancer, we took evidence on the minimum unit price of alcohol, and it was stated that one of the success factors is when neighbouring jurisdictions have a similar price set. What discussions has the Minister had around that? Is that the direction that he is considering?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I am all too aware of the harm that the use of alcohol and other drugs causes across Northern Ireland. That is why my Department has placed reducing harm at the core of our new substance use strategy. The Member will be aware that I formally launched 'Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery — Substance Use Strategy' on 7 September, and I have been closely following the specifics of minimum unit pricing. We have been keeping an eye on what effect the Scottish Government's introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol has had since 2018 and have noted with interest the early positive evaluation reports. I believe that it is our responsibility to consider fully every option available to us to reduce the blight that harm from alcohol use has inflicted on so many across our society.

With regard to addressing alcohol misuse, the North/South alcohol policy advisory group continues to provide a vital forum for information sharing, networking, relationship building and joint working across that vital policy area.

I am also pleased that both Departments engage in the British-Irish Council misuse of substances work sector. Recent ministerial meetings provided an excellent forum for members to exchange information, increase cooperation and reach agreement on matters of mutual interest.

The Member will also be aware that I have directed that our new substance use strategy will include a commitment to holding a full public consultation on the introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Northern Ireland. I anticipate that that will be issued later this year, but, unfortunately, it will not be possible to introduce any legislation in this mandate.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

Following on from Paula's question, it is good to hear that that issue was raised and discussed at the meeting. Were your plans to hold a full public consultation on minimum unit pricing later this year discussed directly at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting? Were any other issues discussed around the sharing of rehabilitation services across the island?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member asks very searching questions. The sharing of rehabilitation services was not raised at that point, but she will be aware that, in 'New Decade, New Approach', there is a commitment for a detox and addiction centre in the north-west. That comes under the heading of "Addressing Northern Ireland's unique circumstances". Work can be done on how that engagement works in the north-west and how successful the cancer centre is in the north-west.

On the specifics around minimum unit pricing of alcohol, it was noted that it will go to public consultation towards the end of this year. The Republic of Ireland is already ahead of us in its work, but we hope that we will not be that much out of step by the time both those consultations and implementations are completed, taking into consideration that we will have an election in May, and, hopefully, that work will continue after that.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon. As he rightly said, the establishment of the cancer consortium in March between the North and the South of Ireland and the US National Cancer Institute is really welcome.

It offers a unique opportunity to reshape cancer services across the island by providing us with access to cutting-edge, modern research and development into cancer and treatments for it. I am pleased to note that the implementation group met in October 2021. How often is it due to meet? Does the Minister expect the collaboration to result in increased funding for cancer research and development across Ireland?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for that. She will be aware that it was in March 2021 that Minister Stephen Donnelly, Dr Ned Sharpless, the director of the National Cancer Institute, and I re-signed that memorandum of understanding committing that body and the two Departments to further cooperation. The next steps will include the formation of an implementation group with senior stakeholders from both Departments of Health and the National Cancer Institute to ensure the delivery of the MOU outputs. I believe that it will play a key role in progressing that collaboration on cancer care treatment and trials. I do not have the detail on when it will meet next, but I will get that to the Member in writing.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, you mentioned discussions that you have had on suicide prevention strategies in the North and South. Can you outline further any discussions that you have had on that important matter?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for again raising the issue. It is a challenge for both jurisdictions, no matter what side of the border that you live on, to work towards addressing the critical issues, and not just suicide prevention but mental health and well-being. We continue to monitor closely the impacts of COVID on a range of mental health and suicide prevention indicators. We continue to see an increasing number of mental health presentations and increased levels of patient acuity for mental health. Suicide prevention continues to be a key priority in both jurisdictions. For example, my Department has its Protect Life 2 suicide prevention strategy. While that is being implemented, new structures have been established to drive progress, and those include the Executive's working group on mental well-being, resilience and suicide prevention.

It is the North/South work on the self-harm registry, however, that has been instrumental in our being able to monitor self-harm figures during this crucial period. Work is developing on exploration of the variance between prevalence and influencing factors in Northern Ireland and the South of Ireland. A paper that described presentations to hospitals as a result of self-harm or ideation and that examined patterns of repetition was published by the 'General Hospital Psychiatry' journal in October 2019. Cross-border collaboration on data registration officer training events will also cover areas of self-care, data protection and case definitions and will be facilitated by both the PHA and the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF) annually. Meetings are under way on funding calls by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) North/South research programme. Consideration is being given to the application for a North/South excellence hub on the identification and prevention of self-harm and suicide research and on the dissemination of evidence to inform practice and policymaking.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. The report on mother-and-baby institutions and Magdalene laundries and the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes have highlighted the importance of ensuring that there is record retention and transparency. Did you and Minister Donnelly discuss the need to work on an all-Ireland basis to preserve and protect those records?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for raising that crucial point about the retention of all documentation, no matter where it is on this island. She will be aware that we have brought forward legislation on adoption and supporting children in care. The Department has drafted an amendment to look at the retention of that documentation. I am aware that it is a live issue in the Republic of Ireland, but it is one that we need to address in both jurisdictions in order to ensure that all documentation is not only retained but made publicly and readily available to any investigations or inquiries that ask for it.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to ask the Minister about the business that clearly fell outside the Health portfolio. I noticed the appointment of 15 people and three chairs to four North/South bodies — the Loughs Agency, InterTradeIreland, the language body and Tourism Ireland — in order to keep those bodies active. Was that agenda item approved for inclusion by the DUP First Minister? How does the Health Minister feel about being the DUP's surrogate when it comes to keeping "North/Southery" on the road?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I undertook a piece of work that was placed on the agenda at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. The Member is right: nothing gets on the agenda unless it is co-signed and signed off by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Member tabled a question for written answer on those appointments so he is aware that the appointments were made under an urgent procedure, which was made by a co-signed request by the First Minister and deputy First Minister for me to cover those appointments at that meeting. However, as the Member will also be aware, for an urgent procedure to be instigated, the process must start with a departmental Minister. Whilst that would not be the best use of a North/South Ministerial Council health sectoral meeting, when the formal request was made through the appropriate channels to get that put on the agenda, I facilitated the request from the originating Minister, which was co-signed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. No other Members have indicated that they wish to ask the Minister a question. I ask Members to pause for a moment. We need to agree a motion to extend the sitting. Members can take their ease for a second.