Belfast Telegraph

Stormont executive's flawed plan over the health and wellbeing of Northern Ireland helping us all stay alive longer

By Will Chambre

It seems that the honourable men and women of the Stormont executive have undertaken a flawed plan, in terms of the health and wellbeing of Northern Ireland's population, by helping us all stay alive longer.

Yes – the bills will mount and the A&E departments will become crowded and an army of home helps will need to be recruited.

Already the media have been inundated with stories about trolley waits of more than a day, harbingers of doom have been calculating the cost of the rising state pension and social care is coming under a cloud of controversy over the issue of care homes.

Healthier diets, fewer dangerous industrial jobs and a health service with ever more methods to keep people alive mean that the average age when the grim reaper comes calling is increasing year on year.

But what about the total population? Just because there are an increasing number of people living longer doesn't mean that there are fewer people being born and fewer children knocking about the streets.

The bills are mounting. This week, for example, the Stormont executive shelled out £15m to avert a growing childcare crisis...despite the increasing number of grandparents being pressed into action to change nappies and pick up children from school.

The transforming your care plan for our local health service aims to have all those grandparents and great grandparents living comfortably at home, pipe and slippers, flat cap and whatever the man wants to wear as well...

But, the 'diseases of ageing' are lurking around the cottages and bungalows, no matter how well the older people's lives have been led. Cancer, fragile bones and dementia are but a few of those health issues that will place greater demands on hospitals; not least the amount of bones needing mended.

If there was a magic wand that the executive could wave to solve this problem, then not only could they untangle these conundrums, but they could market it globally.

The real the good ladies and gentlemen sitting around the executive table in Stormont Castle face is communication...

The population has been brought up to expect universal health care, free at the point of delivery. While there are those who have a half decent grasp of the issues, listening in detail to the news bulletins and considering carefully the newspapers, the general populace and the less informed politicos are all too willing to proclaim any failing in our health service a shame and disgrace.

While improved systems and accommodation will eventually ease, to some extent, the pressure on accident and emergency departments, or will at least reduce trolley waits, we need to lower expectations.

The mixed messages that we currently get from our politicians about the failing or otherwise of our health service are confusing to say the least.

Pensions are likely to reduce in real terms in the near future. Social care is going to continue to be rationed according to extreme need and there is no realistic chance of total hospital budgets stabilising let alone reducing.

Therefore, the Stormont executive needs to be able to say to us all that we either pay privately for some of our healthcare needs or we will have to contribute increasingly via locally raised taxes, which may come at a cost of the total Westminster subvention.

Given the mandatory nature of the coalition at Stormont, and the competing ideologies of the five parties that comprise it, this is unlikely to happen.

Therefore – rather than point-scoring – the parties need to get a grip of how they collectively communicate the challenges facing the health service and the need to ‘cut our cloth’ accordingly. After all they could find themselves landed with the health ministry after the next Assembly election...

Communications need to be coherent, and importantly transparent. For example: “We can't afford more hospital beds...” is a more honest explanation than trying to juggle messages.

Officials managing the health service must also be more transparent rather than being perceived as being dragged before committees to face an inquisition.

But, perhaps vitally – the success stories of health and social care need to be shared widely. There are more and more people being cared for in hospital and in the community than at any point in the history of Northern Ireland; something that is not understood by many people, let alone our politicians.

That is the success that is not communicated.

The week that lies ahead at Stormont

On the last day of March, the Assembly gathers to debate the usual divergent issues. The first debate is on extreme animal cruelty, proposed by DUP members, and critical of Alliance and Sinn Féin ministers.

Next up for debate is a motion on gender inequality at senior grades in the civil service; tabled by Ulster Unionists.

On the first day of April, MLAs will vote on whether social media can be used in council chambers, as the Local Government Bill has its further consideration stage.

Committee business throughout the week is likely to see fractious exchanges. The education committee will witness more rows over the vexed issue of area planning for schools.

The committee for social development is likely to receive the most media attention when social development minister Nelson McCausland comes before it. The minister will give further evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry into allegations made by BBC NI's Spotlight programme on NI Housing Executive contracts.

Elsewhere, committees will be hearing about age discrimination plans, options for rate rebate replacement and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's Events Strategy and Strategic Direction.

As always the team at Chambré Public Affairs will stay on top of the developments across Assembly matters as we enter into the final stages of business before the European and local government elections.

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