The department of health has said it is readying its own business case for medical expansion in Northern Ireland but gave no assurances that a medical school will be based in Derry.
Long-running plans for a medical school at Ulster University’s Magee campus have been plagued with set-backs.
The revised timeline was for enrolment to commence in 2021.
The Derry News asked the department whether it expects the medical school to be approved and for medical students to enrol at Magee next year.
In response, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “The establishment of a Graduate Entry Medical School is one of the priorities of the restored Executive in New Decade, New Approach.
“The Department of Health has been clear that there are two separate business case processes in relation to the development of a Graduate Entry Medical School.
“The first process, which has been under way since 2017, has involved significant assistance from departmental officials on the development of Ulster University’s own business case.
“Ulster University has been grateful for this assistance, which has ensured that their business case meets the standards within government financial guidance.”
He added: “The second process is the development of the Department of Health’s own business case which will outline the need to be addressed by any expansion of medical education.
“That business case will be formally submitted to the Minister very shortly. It will be appreciated that the department’s immediate and overriding priority has been the local response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
“The Department of Health must ensure that any proposal represents value for money for health and social care. It is for the Executive to collectively decide on the best approach for Northern Ireland as a whole.”
There was renewed optimism in January of this year when a deal was agreed by Northern Ireland’s political parties to restore devolved government three years after it collapsed.
The New Decade, New Approach document contains firm commitments to a Magee Medical School from both the British and Irish governments.
It states: “The Executive will expand university provision at Magee in line with commitments made by the previous Executive, including through the establishment of a Graduate Entry Medical School.”
Furthermore, under the section outlining the UK government’s financial and economic commitments to Northern Ireland it says: “Capital and resource funding for the Medical School in Derry
subject to the Northern Ireland Executive’s approval of the project.”
While the Irish government adds that it is ‘willing in principle to contribute to capital investment to support expanded provision at Ulster University Magee Campus, alongside the commitment made as part of this agreement by the UK Government.’
The commitment referred to above by the previous Executive was for 10,000 full-time students at Magee.
In 2019/20 there were 3,456 full-time students enrolled at Magee – 4,237 overall.
Five years previous, 2014/15, there were 3,883 full-time enrolments – 5,098 overall.
Shortly after the ‘New Approach’ document was published it emerged that the exact financial package on the table was unknown.
When revealed it was described as ‘woefully inadequate’ by Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy.
At the end of January, the Department for the Economy (DfE) said it was committed to delivering expansion of Ulster University’s Belfast campus and would provide UU with a £126m bailout to complete the build.
In February, DfE was asked what funding the UK and Irish Governments have committed towards realising 10,000 undergraduate places at the Magee campus.
DUP economy minister Diane Dodds said: “No funding has, as yet, been formally committed by the UK or Irish Governments towards increasing undergraduate places at the Magee Campus as outlined in New Decade, New Approach.
“The Department of Finance remains in discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT) on the UK Government financial package associated with the priorities in New Decade, New Approach.”
For the past month all government departments have understandably been focused on their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Finance and the Economy were both asked for comment but did not provide any at the time of publishing.
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