Stormont deadlock damaging our NHS
Today this newspaper presents a horrifying series of snapshots on the state of the National Health Service in Northern Ireland. They show an organisation creaking at the seams and making unsustainable demands on its staff as winter pressures mount.
The NHS, founded 70 years ago this year, has been the envy of the world for most of that time but is now struggling to retain its status through underinvestment and lack of innovative management.
In Northern Ireland we have an additional problem - no functioning devolved administration, which has exacerbated the annual pressures on the service, delaying reform and adding to the demotivation of many front line NHS staff.
Commentators often write about the NHS facing some level of meltdown but what does that really mean? Our reports spell it out in graphic detail. In October, before winter pressures really began to mount, the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald dealt with a staggering 332 patients in one day, its highest ever number.
On other occasions, the Ambulance Service was forced to publicly appeal to people not to dial 999 unless in cases of real emergencies as it could not cope with the volume of calls. The GP out-of-hours service in the Southern Health Trust was taking 36 hours to respond to patients at one point and on Christmas Eve the Northern Trust out-of-hours service was taking 12 hours to see patients with 400 calls pending at any one time.
Off-duty staff were being called back into hospitals as queues built up in emergency departments and even St John Ambulance staff were being asked to help plug gaps in the service.
Little wonder that many people now regard politics as being in even worst shape than the NHS, being blind to what is happening in our hospitals and community care settings, deaf to the pleas of professionals and patients to intervene and seemingly uncaring as to the consequences of politicians' inaction.
There is consensus that the Bengoa report, which sets a blueprint for a radical overhaul of the way the NHS here is run, could help deliver a better service, but it needs to be implemented by a Health Minister. Secretary of State James Brokenshire must urgently initiate new time-limited talks to break the political logjam and restore the Executive so that properly accountable local politicians can make the everyday decisions needed to safeguard public services.