Health Minister Michael McGimpsey makes a persuasive case in appealing for no more cuts to be imposed on his budget.
While his department is the biggest spender in the public sector, it has to be recognised that demand for services are growing because of an ageing population and the evolution of new treatments. Having made efficiency savings and cuts totalling more than £200m already, any further substantial reduction in the health budget would appear to be a step too far.
The Minister quite rightly points out that health spending in England and Wales has been ring-fenced by the new government and there seems no logical reason why health services in Northern Ireland should not be similarly safeguarded. Indeed, given the higher morbidity levels in the province, the case is all the more compelling. It would be unforgivable if party politics were to play any part in deciding where the public spending axe should fall in the province.
As it stands Mr McGimpsey has had to scale down his plans for the coming year and warned that waiting times may rise and further development of some services will be put on the long finger. He has an unenviable task in trying to juggle increasing demand against diminishing resources, and while there are undoubted savings that can be made in an organisation as large and complex as the NHS, his room for manoeuvre is limited. The NHS is very labour intensive and his pledge not to introduce any compulsory redundancies is to be welcomed.
However, if health is not to suffer a disproportionate cut in its spending, where else can savings be made. Surely now is the time for a serious public debate on the issue and politicians must decide if the province can afford to continue to defer water rates, freeze the domestic regional rate and give free public transport to everyone over the age of 60. It will take considerable political courage to grasp these particular nettles.