Health service needs a remedy
It is beyond question, in spite of the best efforts of frontline staff, that the health service in Northern Ireland is critically ill. Every month it seems that new symptoms emerge - chaos in accident and emergency departments, cancelled operations, a dysfunctional care in the community system which causes bed blocking in hospitals and now a staggering sickness level among staff costing more than £100m in the last year.
It is beyond question that many frontline staff are suffering from stress - as the unions suggest. Dealing with life and death situations on a daily basis and working in an environment rife with infections is bound to be debilitating, but that surely cannot account for the entire sickness levels.
A snapshot taken last August showed that 2,234 full-time staff out of a total workforce of 70,000 were off work. That places an extra burden on already hard-pressed colleagues and the recruitment of temporary - but expensive - replacements such as bank nurses. The health service annually consumes nearly half of the £10bn block grant given by the Treasury to run Northern Ireland and yet, we are continually told, the service needs more money. No one doubts that extra funding would ease some of the pressures but that is not the answer.
Earlier this month, on the foot of a report by Sir Liam Donaldson, an expert panel was set up to examine possible remedies for the health service. Obviously its work will take some time to come to fruition but such is the urgency of the situation it should be completed as soon as possible. To be really effective it is evident that some way to make the health service more cost effective and more streamlined must be found. One suggestion made by Sir Liam was to reduce the number of hospitals and the administrative duplication here as his examination found that expertise is spread too thinly.
This is not a new idea but it is a medicine which local politicians find difficult to swallow as it would be unpopular in the areas affected. The debate on the way forward may also have to include whether or not the health service - the social policy jewel of the UK - can be totally free at the point of delivery to everyone.
Should everyone have free prescriptions for example and could some minor services attract a charge?
Unless radical action is taken the prognosis for the NHS is unpromising.