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Seven-day health service will have broad support

Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt appears determined to push ahead with delivering a seven-day NHS, a move that has received support from his Stormont counterpart Simon Hamilton.

It is certainly an idea that will have broad public appeal. People take ill at all times of the day or night - not just during office hours - and are entitled to receive a consistent standard of care.

There should not be a higher level of service Monday to Friday compared to the weekend. That is not a sustainable position in a modern health service.

Of course, we know there are already many nurses, midwives and doctors working nights and weekends and they are doing their best to deal with patient demand.

But Mr Hunt clearly has senior staff in his sights and has given the British Medical Association six weeks to negotiate changes to working contracts for hospital consultants and junior doctors.

The health minister said he has ``yet to meet a consultant who would be happy for their own family to be admitted on a weekend'', and claimed around 6,000 lives are lost every year due to a lack of senior staff on Saturdays and Sundays.

The BMA said it supports more seven-day hospital services but has asked the government how the changes will be funded.

This is a key question as providing a seven-day service with five-day staffing levels will clearly stretch resources. Some areas are already under severe strain, particularly GP services which are struggling to deal with increased demand and finding it difficult to recruit sufficient numbers.

This is a issue which is especially acute in Northern Ireland where there have also been serious problems with out of hours accident and emergency provision with patients facing intolerably long waits for treatment in conditions which are far from ideal.

It has to be accepted that we are living in a world where many people are expected to work nights and weekends, often for no additional payment.

Simon Hamilton says he wants to move ``progressively'' towards a seven-day health service in Northern Ireland, ``one where patients and people don't notice the difference between a week day and a weekend.''

This is a laudable aim but, as we know, delivering major reform in the NHS is a slow, fraught and complex process.

But change has to begin somewhere and this is an idea which deserves proper consideration.

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