The political deadlock is jeopardizing the health of children in Northern Ireland as the two-year stalemate has led to no real progress in child health policy, say worried children’s doctors.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Ireland has called for an end to the deadlock and for decisive leadership that puts ‘children’s health before politics,’ as its ‘State of Child Health Northern Ireland: Two years on’ scorecard, published today, predicts danger ahead without resolve.

The scorecard, which looks at the progress made against a series of recommendations from the RCPCH’s landmark State of Child Health (2017) report, reveals that the mental health of children and young people is progressively slipping into deeper levels of crisis, a quarter of children are overweight or obese and little progress has been made in preventing child deaths due to the lack of a child death review panel.

The scorecard reveals there has been no progress towards:

  • Preventing child deaths: The Child Deaths Overview Panel is yet to be implemented – despite the legislation to establish it being passed – making it harder to learn from child deaths in Northern Ireland and prevent cases reoccurring, meanwhile the Protect Life 2: A Strategy for Suicide Prevention in the North of Ireland remains in draft form and without a focus on children, meaning they continue to be neglected
  • Service improvement: Failure to capture high quality child health data is making it harder to identify and meet the needs of children and young people
  • Delivering high quality health education to children: Standardising the Personal Social Health and Education curriculum, and ensuring it tackles issues around mental health, nutrition, sex and relationships, bullying and social inclusion, resilience, drugs and alcohol, across all primary and post primary schools has not been achieved
  • Preventing child obesity: There are no plans to extend the measurement of children so data is captured after birth, before school and in adolescence, nor plans to reduce the proximity of fast food outlets to schools, colleges, leisure centres and other places where children gather
  • Developing research capacity to drive improvements in children’s health – the impending departure from the EU makes this even more concerning

Dr Ray Nethercott of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said:

“It has been two years since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and our optimism that the situation would be resolved and power restored, has now turned to dismay.

“This scorecard reveals child health policy has stalled and where progress had been made before dissolution – a draft Children and Young People’s Strategy and a draft Suicide Prevention Strategy – the absence of Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) has meant that very little policy development or implementation have been achieved since.

What I find most alarming, especially in light of the recent Hyponatraemia Related-deaths Inquiry, is that Northern Ireland remains without a Child Death Overview Panel. Without it, we cannot fully learn why children die and prevent future deaths.

Our political system lacks leadership and as a result, is in a chaotic state. I urge politicians from all political parties to put an end to this damaging deadlock, put children’s health before politics and put child health at the top of the agenda before it is too late.”

Despite the absence of a political system, remarkably, progress has been made on several areas which include:

  • Road safety: A new graduated driver licensing system is expected to be introduced in Northern Ireland in 2019/20, and a number of areas are trialling 20mph zones to create safer environments for children to walk, cycle and play
  • Home safety: Health visiting services and home safety equipment schemes are being delivered which educate and equip parents and carers to keep their children safe, with a focus on water safety, blind cord safety and safe sleeping
  • Breastfeeding: The Department of Health has continued to monitor progress against the Breastfeeding – a great start: a strategy for Northern Ireland 2013-2023, and have published a mid-term review on its implementation

Dr Nethercott continues:

“Given the current political crisis in Northern Ireland, it is miraculous that any policy has been introduced. Northern Ireland has the highest child mortality rate in the UK across all age groups. After the first year of life, death during the teenage years are where they most likely to occur. As many of these deaths are potentially avoidable, policies on improved road and home safety will most certainly help. We would however like to ensure that 20mph zones are introduced to more areas, especially in residential areas where there is a significant presence of vulnerable road users. Enforcing these policies is also important – without it, child health will most certainly suffer.”

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