Northern Ireland’s health minister has said he is not afraid to take difficult decisions as he announced reform plans.

Mike Nesbitt stressed that tackling inequalities between the poorest and wealthiest in society with a multi-department effort must at the heart of health reform.

It comes after a department report earlier this year found that women in the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland can expect to live 14 fewer years in good health than those in the least deprived communities.

Professor Rafael Bengoa at Stormont in Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)

Mr Nesbitt described this statistic as “simply not acceptable” as he announced a series of planned initiatives over the next six months.

These include a “live better” initiative to increase uptake of health screening and vaccination, mental health support, building health literacy, nutritional advice and opportunities to be more physically active as well as a plan for hospital reconfiguration to be published for public consultation this summer.

A three-year strategic plan for health and social care will be published in the autumn, while the author of a significant 2016 health reform plan, Systems Not Structures, Professor Rafael Bengoa is expected to return to the region later this year.

Meanwhile Mr Nesbitt is also set to engage with other Executive ministers over cross department recommendations around the establishment of a Children and Families Arm’s Length Body, the appointment of a Minister for Children and Families, the expansion of the Sure Start Programme and the Gillen Review of Civil and Family Justice.

Mr Nesbitt said the announcement is not about another review of the health service, but assessing work already undertaken and identifying action required.

While he said it is not possible to do everything in the three years remaining of this Assembly mandate, he can do a “very significant amount and set a direction of travel which I think will leave the successor with a much easier path to follow”.

“The Bengoa Report is eight years old, we’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had five years of no government,” he said.

He said he believes Professor Bengoa “will help reboot the public debate on health reform”, which he said “has become increasingly distorted, with reform too often misconstrued as a cost cutting programme, or a plan to close hospitals”.

“This is damaging the objective of genuine reform which is to deliver better outcomes,” he said.

Speaking to media in Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Nesbitt said he was not afraid to take difficult decisions.

“I think if you ask people who know me, they will tell you I won’t duck difficult decisions so if you’re going to have to create areas of specialism, logically some places will not do things that they are currently doing, that has to be the way of it because we can’t afford every hospital to do everything,” he said.

He also said he is confident of being supported in this bid by his colleagues.

“Health can do about 20% of the inequalities piece and the rest is socio economic, it’s environmental, it’s down to individual and family lifestyles,” he said.

“I got a very good response (from ministers), there was nothing to indicate other than the other ministers will come in behind and help tackle things like the 26% economic inactivity we have at the moment.

“It’s all inter-related and I am optimistic that we’ll work together over the next three years.”