NHS will never improve while we only attack the symptoms

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The announcement of 100 extra nurse training places should help relieve pressure on the NHS in Northern Ireland.

Simon Hamilton said that the increase was a 15 per cent rise that brought the number of pre-registration places available in the Province to 745.

The DUP MLA used the announcement to highlight the fact that the number of front-line nurses and midwives had already risen by 1,200 over the past four and a half years, but that “demand for nurses across our health system continues to rise”.

The health minister also set up a new task group to make recommendations about future delivery of nursing and midwifery over the next 15 years.

These increases, however, are the easy bit. To use a medical analogy, Stormont is attacking symptoms rather than cause.

All of the political parties are culpable because they refuse to be remotely honest with the public. We in the media are culpable too, for breathlessly reporting the symptoms, and not so much as discussing the cause. The public is not blameless, but this perhaps is because it is not being told the position bluntly.

The NHS is under pressure because we expect so much of it. Every time a politician so much as moots the closure of a hospital, there is uproar, no matter how inefficient the unit and no matter the fact that its more efficient replacement might be further away for some people but better for society overall.

Stormont has also authorised free prescriptions (an idiotic move) and refuses even to discuss a modest fee to see GPs.

Meanwhile, people are living longer and making greater demands of the NHS. The increase in life expectancy is almost miraculous and a wonderful story. But the cost is potentially limitless and there is no appetite for extra taxes that will be essential in the absence of reform.

This must be discussed openly and the News Letter has tried to give space to people who do so.

But there needs to be a much more frank and a much wider discussion of why we are where we are.