Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

As cuts loom, these feuding MLAs are making me sick

No doubt you regard healthcare as the most vital public service, but will you comment on the draft Budget currently out for consultation?

We, the citizens of Northern Ireland, have only until February 16 to do so. Time is running short, but you owe it to yourself and your family to have your say.

I know the very mention of a draft Budget is yawn-inspiring to many people, but every nurse, doctor, consultant, or other health employee should take the time to study it. So, too, should the wider community.

If you need more persuading, take a look at the scale of the likely cuts:

* 4,000 jobs

* £800m Budget shortfall

* Waiting lists lengthen

* No new patients on high-cost drugs

* New buildings left unmanned

* Closure of beds

* Hospital beds blocked

* Community care cut

Imagine a member of your family takes ill and is in need of health and social care in the coming years. Ask yourself are you prepared to accept these cuts without protest or comment.

I have watched and listened over the past week to the so-called debates about the health budget and, in my view, it's very difficult to know what, or whom, to believe.

All suggestions by the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, that the current proposed level of funding is insufficient are roundly rejected by his colleagues in government and particularly the DUP Finance Minister and chair of the health committee.

Rational debate on our health service has become a victim of inter-party rivalry as the Executive has descended to a new low in party politicking over the most crucial issue affecting all of us.

How many times have we heard MLAs protesting about the lack of health or social care in their area, or strongly resisting proposals to shut a ward or close an A-amp;E department? Where are some of them now when the parties they represent are prepared to accept hundreds of millions in real cuts in health services with barely a murmur of dissent?

Nothing better illustrates the failure of the current Executive to exercise collective responsibility. Virtually from the moment the Ulster Unionist party nominated McGimpsey to accept what has turned out to be a very poisoned chalice, he has been a target for attack. The question must be asked why, given its size (38% of public-sector spending in Northern Ireland) and importance, the DUP or Sinn Fein didn't take the opportunity to run the department?

First there was Iris Robinson, chairperson of the health committee, railing against the minister on innumerable occasions.

Her successor, Jim Wells, is more polite, but still maintains health has received "the best possible treatment" in the draft Budget and claims the minister and his civil servants are engaged in a "grand game of poker".

I listened to Mr Wells recently giving his perspective on the BBC. This is a verbatim account of his comments to Stephen Nolan:

Nolan: "You have got the non-political civil servants. They are not politicians and John Compton [chief executive of the Health and Social Services Board] is not a politician and he has said that the health service is on the verge of bankruptcy."

Wells: "All the staff are under the instruction of the minister and they have to paint a gloomy picture."

Nolan: "No, they're not."

Wells: "Of course they are."

I quote these remarks because they typify the attitude at Stormont towards the health service whereby even the independence and integrity of senior public servants is called into question by the chairman of the health committee.

The proposed Budget is grossly inadequate to cope with a future Northern Ireland, where an ageing population is requiring more - not less - care, where sophisticated medical treatment costs more when we are planning to spend less, and where, more than any other corner of the UK, our community is dependent on health and social care.

Of course, grappling with cuts of £4bn in the Northern Ireland Budget over the next four years represents an enormous and unenviable challenge. It is the final, and arguably biggest, test of the Peter Robinson/Martin McGuinness leadership.

Their dysfunctional Executive still has a last chance to redeem itself and no issue can be more important than the future health and social care of the people.

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