The surest sign of a politician under pressure is when he, or she, starts doling out gifts.
The Prime Minister, who is fighting for his political future, used his speech at the Labour Party conference to announce free prescriptions for people with cancer. It was an unashamedly populist move, aimed at improving his standing in the country. However, it will not win him any favours in Northern Ireland. For his announcement only applies to England — Wales and Scotland already offer their cancer patients free medicines. Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK where people with cancer still have to pay for their prescriptions.
That is a disgraceful state of affairs. It is wrong; it is unjust and it is short-sighted. It is wrong because people with cancer don't just suffer from the disease, they can also be affected by their treatment.
Side effects such as nausea, fatigue, mouth ulcers and chronic diarrhoea also require medication and the final bill for patients can be hundreds of pounds each year. That is money many people cannot well
afford, especially if the patient is the main bread-winner of the family and is living on reduced income.
It is unjust because, as already noted, Northern Ireland is the only place where cancer patients will not get free prescriptions.
The number of people involved — an estimated 50,000 people are believed to have the disease at any one time — is relatively small compared to the numbers in the other regions of the UK. As an integral part of the UK, it is only proper that patients here are treated on exactly the same basis as anywhere else.
It is a short-sighted policy. Even Northern Ireland's
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey admits that giving cancer patients the medication they require could mean long term savings for the Health Service. If patients are able to manage their condition with the aid of drugs, then they will be able to live in the community and not require expensive hospital treatment.
Modern drugs can make an enormous difference to the quality of life of patients.
This newspaper has campaigned for free prescriptions for all in Northern Ireland.
Our argument is that it would cost relatively little and that substantial savings could be made in ad
ministration and combating the current levels of fraud surrounding prescriptions.
At the very least, we have argued, people living with chronic, long-term conditions such as cancer, but also including asthma and arthritis, should get free medication.
The Prime Minister's announcement has given our campaign added weight and urgency.
He has shown that there is no point of principle involved, just expediency. Mr McGimpsey some time ago ordered a review of prescription charges and now says he is considering a range of options. We say one option, which should be implemented immediately, is free medication for all people with cancer and other long term chronic conditions.
A problem for the Minister is that the Executive is not currently meeting to discuss issues such as this because of the standoff between Sinn Fein and the DUP over policing and justice devolution.
They must bury their differences and get back to work. The health of their constituents depend on the new administration working properly.