NHS shortages can't be ignored
Even the most casual observer knows that the health service in Northern Ireland is under severe pressure. Waiting lists are soaring, the time taken to see specialist health professionals is lengthening and the situation in accident and emergency departments is often chaotic.
But, as our report today on staff shortages and expenditure on agency and bank staff to plug the holes reveals, it is little wonder that the service is in the state it is.
Health trusts have spent a staggering £140m in one year on temporary staff and, as this newspaper previously reported, agency nurses at one health trust were paid an incredible £87 a hour - with a significant proportion of that going to the agency.
The Royal College of Nursing believes that there is a shortage of 1,500 nurses across the province and other research has shown that at least 243 doctors' posts were unfilled recently.
The Department of Health's assertion that agency and bank staff play a vital role in maintaining services is meaningless. The question that most people want answered is, why is there such heavy reliance on those staff and such high expenditure?
Have the Department or the Trusts tried to fill the posts, but were unable to find enough qualified doctors and nurses to do so? How far did their search - if any was indeed conducted - extend?
Or, as has been suggested by one MLA, were the vacancies either deliberately created or left unfilled, simply to save money? If that was the case, then it was short-termism in the extreme. It could even be said that patient care was potentially compromised.
All the statistics show that demand on health services is constantly rising as the population rises and it is a truism that no matter how much money is put into the health service budget, it can be consumed easily.
But that means funding has to be used efficiently and planning needs to be more long term than in the current situation, where it is reviewed annually. The administration of hiring and deploying agency and bank staff alone must cost much-needed money which would be much better spent on frontline services.
It is worrying that the Royal College of Nursing here says the reliance on part-time staff is not value for money and can impact on the quality of care provided. The Department and Trusts cannot ignore such a warning or allow the present situation to continue.