Belfast Telegraph

Shameful that our political system won't be partaking in process to get to truth

By John Compton

Last week began a very anxious time for patients and their families who have attended our hospital neurology services.

We have learned that 2,500 people are to be recalled as part of a response to investigate an apparent failure in the service.

While 2,500 are being recalled, no doubt many more using our hospitals will have felt very anxious.

The unprecedented recall of patients gained not only extensive local coverage but was also widely reported in the national news. It is no surprise that much of the commentary on what has turned out to be the largest ever recall of patients in Northern Ireland has been focused on seeking an explanation for how this could have happened and who is to blame.

It is, however, a time for calm reflection on what really should be to the fore at this stage.

At minimum, 2,500 people of all ages, their families and friends are worried and anxious about the very personal impact these events have already had, and the potential difficult news some may yet hear.

The focus must now exclusively be on ensuring they are seen in as timely a manner as possible, and supported through the process. Even with the best of intentions, this cannot happen in less than 12 weeks.

It's a long time for anyone to deal with the personal anxiety the recall has caused. This fact should govern how we discuss this matter over the coming 12 weeks in the public arena. More simply put, any comment publicly made must pass the test of its potential impact for the affected individuals and their families.

It is seductive, and at times compelling, to think that a public commentary on the recall process is necessary or helpful. The truth is that it is not.

There will, quite properly, be a forensic examination of all the events in this case. This needs to be undertaken in a manner which addresses the fact that this event has damaged public trust.

Given the scale of the recall it will have profound implications for the system of health care in Northern Ireland and for some individuals working in it. We will need to be patient while the process for explaining and understanding what has happened is developed.

Many people will contribute to this process, Royal Colleges, RQIA, the Belfast Trust, the Department of Health, but above all it will need to give voice to the people most personally affected. The one absentee looks like it will be our political system and this must be a concern to us all. Had the political system been in place a minister would have made a statement on the event, MLAs would have scrutinised him or her on our behalf and the health committee would have questioned those involved.

As time has passed we have all become used to 'no politics' and have to a greater or lesser extent lost interest in the political system. The events in the health service in this past week should remind us all we are the poorer for not having a functioning political system.

It's worth contrasting what has happened politically in Northern Ireland with the response to difficulties in the breast screening in England. Jeremy Hunt, the minister, has been to the fore in exercising political leadership both in the House of Commons and the media.

It does not remove the distress of those affected but it does give a focal point for those affected and some reassurance that those who are politically accountable will insist on a thorough response to their circumstances.

Undoubtedly those most let down are the 2,500 waiting to attend their recall appointment.

While we must wait patiently for the explanation through the forensic review, our patience is nothing compared to those who anxiously await their review appointment. Whatever any of us can do to provide support during that anxious time should determine our behaviours.

John Compton is the former chief executive of Northern Ireland's Health and Social Care Board

Belfast Telegraph

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