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Talk of any reparation at this early stage is unprecedented

Health officials are undertaking work to ascertain how patients caught up in the neurology recall scandal may be compensated.

While similar work may have been carried out as a result of previous patient recalls, it is unprecedented for the Department of Health to announce this is happening.

For example, when the Belfast Health Trust began a recall of more than 100 dental patients in February 2011, it did not initially name the consultant at the centre of the health scare, let alone go so far as to suggest affected patients would be entitled to compensation.

This is despite the fact it emerged that a number of patients received a late cancer diagnosis and four of them had subsequently died.

The fact officials have taken the unusual step of revealing the possibility of financial redress - before a raft of reviews of the situation have been carried out - is significant.

It is a clear acknowledgement that the trust believes there's a chance at least some of the recalled patients may have come to harm, either through potential misdiagnosis or mistreatment.

It also points to the possibility that this could be as a result of systemic failings, as opposed to the actions of an individual.

But the most pertinent question that follows on from the admission of the possibility of compensation is what will be the cost to the health service.

At this stage, it is impossible to know for certain as no-one knows how many people, if any, have been adversely affected, and to what degree.

However, given the number of patients involved in the recall, and any potential harm to their health, the cost of any compensation scheme could run into tens of millions of pounds.

The next big question is how will this impact on the health service budget? In Northern Ireland, the sector is already facing a potential £160m shortfall in its budget this financial year, with no sign that the budgetary pressures are going to ease up.

If health bosses are hit with a compensation bill, even one running into just a few million pounds, it is difficult to imagine that frontline services will not be affected.

It's also difficult to envisage that either Westminster or Stormont departments will be willing to bail out the health service here if it transpires that compensation has to be paid as a result of potential serious systemic failures by health officials.

Former health minister Jim Wells commented: "I'm very surprised that the possibility of compensation has been raised, particularly at this early stage.

"I do think it could lead to families of other patients from other recalls coming forward for compensation as well.

"It could lead to the department essentially having to write a blank cheque to a huge number of people.

"The financial situation when I was minister was tough. I spent many a long hour with my officials trying to balance the books, and we did achieve that, but that was only as a result of a lot of hard work.

"The financial situation now is on a totally different planet and, given the figures and the possibility of such a large compensation scheme, it's difficult to see how the new health minister, no matter who they are, will get any sleep at night."

Belfast Telegraph