Collapse of Stormont has left health rudderless for two years

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Of the many, many problems that flow from the suspension of Stormont, the situation in health is perhaps the most critical.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved health minister now for more than two years, since Sinn Fein collapsed the executive.

The British government has been hopelessly weak thereafter and refused to introduce direct rule, for fear of annoying nationalists and the Irish government.

Consequently, health is rudderless, as are all government departments.

But the situation in health was already bad, also due to political cowardice — the failure to reform NHS provision in Northern Ireland due to concern at being seen to be presiding over ‘cuts’. This latter cowardice is not in fact one for which the British government is to blame, but rather it is a cowardice displayed across the spectrum by local politicians.

For almost 20 years, a series of expert health reports have said that hospital provision in Northern Ireland is inefficient, and that the Province needs a smaller number of first-class units. This in turn will lead to better use of precious NHS funds and better health outcomes.

All the political parties know this and they have all edged towards accepting reform. But reform has not happened.

One statistic after another shows the problems in our NHS. The latest is the fact that 6,000 people had to wait more than 12 hours at A&E departments in the last three months.

The restoration of Stormont is not of itself a guaranteed solution. When it was operating, MLAs introduced a host of expensive, voter-pleasing measures such as lowering the age at which public transport becomes free (in a time of rising life expectancy) to abolishing prescription charges.

But there is now widespread acceptance among MLAs of the need for health reform.

Yet it is all being blocked by republican demands for a Irish language act before Stormont can return.