Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Health budget cuts prognosis worsens

Some people suspected that Health Minister Michael McGimpsey was simply playing politics when he issued his dire warnings on the state of the health service in Northern Ireland following publication of his draft budget.

Predicting up to 4,000 job cuts, reduced services and increased waiting lists was seen as a bartering tool, stoking up public fears in the hope that he might loosen Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's grip on the public purse-strings.

But now we have concrete proof that the system is packed to the seams with very little leeway. The closure of the accident and emergency unit at Belfast's Mater Hospital for 24 hours because it was unable to cope with the number of people seeking medical attention, shows that Mr McGimpsey was not exaggerating. Of course at this time of year there are increased admissions and a greater strain on services as winter illnesses take hold on the elderly and young.

Swine flu is an added dimension this year, but there is very limited flexibility in the system. While the Mater Hospital was able to divert patients to other Belfast hospitals, such an option is not so readily available in more rural locations. Insiders believe that budget cuts already in place have put enormous strain on the health service and that the situation can only get worse when new economies are made.

Given that the winter pressures have not yet peaked, never mind an end in sight, it may well be the case that Mr McGimpsey's grim predictions will not only come true, but could be understating rather than overstating the case. There certainly seems to be an argument for looking again at the health budget for the province.

This is one service that should be spared penny pinching as far as possible and, certainly, there should be no suggestion of any party politics in deciding what funds will be available.

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