The meeting between Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last night at which an unpalatable diagnosis on the state of the health service was delivered should be the catalyst for a proper debate on the issue. But Dr McBride was simply reiterating what he had already told Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson earlier this year.
A report in this newspaper today reveals how the CMO and Julie Thompson, the senior finance director at the Department of Health, painted a very stark picture on the future of health services here. Unless the health budget was boosted we face deteriorating waiting times, compromised safety and quality of services, a failure to meet statutory requirements and a growing gap between standards here and in other parts of the UK.
That independent view should have set alarm bells ringing within the parties at Stormont. Sinn Fein should have realised that its refusal to implement welfare reforms, which has led to a reduction in the block grant from Westminster, is bound to impact on the most vital service provided by Government. The DUP, for its part, simply cannot just continue to blame Sinn Fein for the ills of the health service while its own party member, Health Minister Edwin Poots, threatens to ignore budget cuts and keep on spending. This is juvenile politics, pointing the finger of blame at each other while ignoring the seriousness of the situation and refusing to engage in a proper debate on priorities within the health service. The parties need to look at potential areas of saving like reintroducing prescription charges – although this newspaper campaigned for free prescriptions several years ago. The politicians must also examine how we pay for services, what role private providers can play, and if management costs are properly contained. They cannot just hope that the UK taxpayer will ride to the rescue if they continue to play political games with this vital service. Health is a devolved responsibility and it is time the politicians took proper responsibility for it and initiated a reasoned, evidence-based debate.