An expansion of cross border health provision could help to reduce Northern Ireland’s “dire” waiting lists, Michelle O’Neill has said.
The deputy First Minister also called for a “ramping up” of co-operation between the Stormont executive and Irish government in the Covid-19 fight.
She urged an expansion of the remit currently covered by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by health departments north and south earlier in the pandemic.
Ms O’Neill told the Assembly that while she supported a “Fortress Ireland” approach to dealing with the pandemic, she also said it would be beneficial to treat the UK and Ireland as one unit on certain issues, such as travel restrictions.
The deputy First Minister was answering questions on July’s meeting of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in Dublin.
She said a sectoral NSMC meeting with the health ministers of the two jurisdictions would take place at the end of next week.
The Sinn Féin vice president was asked by Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw on the prospect of patients on waiting lists in Northern Ireland receiving treatment in the Irish Republic.
Ms O’Neill said the issue was the responsibility of Stormont health minister Robin Swann, but she added: “Certainly there are opportunities for us to work across this island.
“Our waiting lists were already in a dire situation before Covid and obviously a lot of things have been put on hold just as we tried to respond to the pandemic.
“And for those people who have been waiting a long time, I’m quite sure there are avenues for us to be able to work across the island to be able to provide people the opportunity to get the medical attention which they obviously will require.
“So I think there’s going to be a need for us all to work really hard to actually try and address the waiting lists because we know they’re dire.
“They were before Covid and they certainly will be in an even worse state on the other side of this.”
On the cross-border approach to tackling Covid-19, Ms O’Neill told the Assembly the signing of the MoU was “crucially important”.
“But I think we could do more,” she added.
“I think we could do an awful lot more. And I hope that at the sectoral meeting on October 2 the two health ministers and the chief medical officers in response to the current situation of Covid will be able to bring forward maybe additionality to that Memorandum of Understanding on what else can we do to work together to get us through the winter months, which we all acknowledge readily are going to be very, very challenging.”
She added: “As we face into the winter months, we need to seriously really ramp that up and work collectively across the island.
“So I think that we have to have a very eagle eye to all of that and the restrictions that are in place and work in tandem as best as we can.”
During the summer, Ms O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster wrote to the UK and Irish governments to convene a British Irish Council (BIC) to allow ministers from across the islands to discuss travel restrictions and explore opportunities for a joined-up approach.
The meeting has not yet materialised.
“We’ve asked for it and pushed for it on a number of occasions,” Ms O’Neill said when asked about the BIC meeting on Monday.
“I think that that meeting should happen as a matter of urgency.”
SDLP MLA Justin McNulty asked about the “plight” of cross border workers who live in Northern Ireland but work in the Irish Republic and who are ineligible for Irish government Covid-19 support measures.
“I have raised that issue on numerous occasions and I have written to the Irish government on the issue,” replied Ms O’Neill.
“I think that is a disgrace that those workers have been left behind. So I think that there needs to be a resolution to it and it’s in the Irish government’s hands to find a resolution to it, to make sure that those workers do receive the payment which they are entitled.”