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Health service deserves better than a slow death of 1,000 cuts

The BBC and Sir Gerry Robinson have done a great service to Northern Ireland with his series of Monday programmes on the Belfast Health Trust.

Even if you missed the first two, watch tonight's final insight. Robinson has a deceptive, laid-back style which belies the probing nature of his questions.

Superficial he is not and in a series entitled Life Matters, he gets to the heart of the matter.

Around 40% of the entire Northern Ireland budget is spent on health and social services and it's not nearly enough. A bill of £4.3bn may be hard to comprehend, but a figure of some £8,000-a-year for every household brings home the scale of requirement.

Time and again, people including local politicians sound off at the drop of a bedside drip about what's wrong with the health service. They talk out off the top of their heads about medical procedures which doctors and consultants have taken years to understand.

They pontificate about what services should be provided in their locality even though they have little understanding of what can be afforded or staffed effectively.

Gerry Robinson's three programmes help to bring home the incredible complexity of the targets and challenges of the modern health service as treatment and technology breaks more new frontiers with ever escalating costs. Do politicians and the public in Northern Ireland really have any comprehension of the enormity of these challenges? I doubt it.

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Far too many of us care not one jot about the health service until we need it. We take it for granted. In the past week, we heard about farmers milking £60m out of European Community grants with bogus claims.

Too many in the Stormont Assembly are still double jobbing in spite of all the public's disapproval. We still have a ridiculous 26 district councils when all we need are eleven and probably less.

We learn that a public department paid British Telecom £16,000-a-pop for what must be 60 of the most over-priced computers in the Western world. Another £12m of public funds has been buried deep in that vast piece of waste ground aptly known as the Maze.

Contentious parades and dangerous bonfires will soon cost the public purse more money to police in the next few weeks. Northern Ireland, it seems, has taxpayers' money to burn or bury on everything but the health of its citizens.

Tens of thousands of us go in and out of hospitals and health centres every year and are broadly satisfied with the treatment we receive. It's not perfect, but if you were to judge the health service from the comments expressed on the airwaves and in newspapers, you would think it was falling apart and the people in charge were totally incompetent.

On behalf of all the administrators, consultants, doctors, nurses and staff generally, who year in year out work beyond the call of duty, I ask: Who recognises their worth to our society? Who sees beyond the failings of a tiny minority and offers praise to the vast majority of NHS staff?

I think the Gerry Robinson TV insight put their value to our society in proper perspective. There are no simple answers. It is easy to criticise, but much harder to understand the daily battles which everyone in the health service faces to meet targets.

True, we spend a lot on health. But do we spend enough? Certainly, not in comparison to England and Wales, in spite of the fact Northern Ireland is the area of greatest dependency in the UK on health and social services.

True, we are generous givers to health charities, but that is not the same as saying we would pay more through taxes or national insurance for the NHS or sacrifice some other benefits. For example, we were prepared to take a three-year freeze on water charges, while at the same time cutting funds to health and education.

We have taken the cake and eaten it and given little thought to the consequences. Now the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, warns of dire cuts "worse than the 70s," which could mean health spending will be deposited in another casualty ward. This brings me back to the health of Northern Ireland. Have a look at Sir Gerry Robinson's programme tonight and ask yourself afterwards: have we got our priorities right? What's more important - saving money on water charges or spending more on saving lives?

Do I hear you, the Northern Ireland public, say: "Ring-fence spending on health whatever the level of cuts may be?" Or am I dreaming?

Life matters. Health matters. Maybe we all need to rethink what matters to us.